There are many aspects that draw so many people worldwide into sport. Whether as participants, spectators, or both, sport appeals to our emotions and well-being as a greater society. Sport is a universal language that spans cultural and generational boundaries.
Sport also offers us an opportunity to elevate public interest in important social causes across these boundaries and into new territories of social progress. We see that with notable past examples: racial equality and Jackie Robinson, establishment protests and Muhammad Ali, gender equality and Billie Jean King, and most recently, pay equity and the US Women’s National Team. These hallmark examples, and so many others like them, draw us deeper into our love of sport.
We take the good with the bad
Despite all our nostalgia and love of sport, we may quickly forget that sport is a human enterprise full of triumphs but also of faults, such as desire for power and control – or simply put – dominance. In a study, Melanie Sartore-Baldwin of East Carolina University, Katie Quatmann-Yates of Ohio State University, and I wrote, we highlighted the beauty and the empowering aspects of sport. However, there is another side to the coin, and it’s possible for social systems and systemic problems to be recreated or reinforced in sport from youth sport to elite international sporting competitions.
We argue that to end these persistent and harmful systems that are perpetrated in and through sport, a sense of shared responsibility must be accepted by all stakeholders. Those with greater influence carry more responsibility to do what is right. This shared responsibility can be extended into sport including timely issues of athlete welfare with concerns to mental health (NCAA, NBA) and safety from sexual predators and pedophiles (Larry Nassar-US Gymnastics-Michigan State), to animal welfare (Santa Anita Racetrack) and the preservation of the natural environment.
Like many brands, sport has the power to influence the public, whether by perpetuating broken social systems or by promoting positive social change. So then, why don’t we expect sport brands to consistently choose positive social change, and amplify the messages of pressing issues of our time?
Sport’s unique position
An example of this problem surfaces in the area of global climate change. In recent work, I argue that sport is in a unique position when it comes to engaging in climate action. That is, sport is insulated by fans’ deep love of their team. This love of their team can protect the team from criticisms for not engaging in various social issues and in this case, climate action. That is, compared to other business sectors, the sport sector does not have shareholders that will place social pressure on the organization to act on business and social issues like climate change and environmental sustainability initiatives. Sport fans can apply social pressure on an organization, but this pressure rarely translates to revenue losses or a loss of interest in the team.
To exemplify this, Jamee Pelcher from the University of Tennessee, a former graduate student of mine, and I were curious to see how many individual sport organizations in North America publish a sustainability report on a semi-regular basis, beyond highlighting their environmental sustainability initiatives on the community engagement section of their websites. We found that only five teams in the top tier professional sport leagues in North America regularly release a sustainability report as compared to 87% of S&P 500 companies (Governance & Accountability Institute, 2019). This juxtaposition between the sport sector and other business sectors is significant and worthy of further inquiry by fans and the general public alike.
However, sports fans are receptive to environmental messaging from sport organizations much to the misperception of sport practitioners surveyed in a SportsBusiness Journal survey in 2016. Fellow Seattle University colleague, Dr. Galen Trail, and I conducted a national survey of sport and non-sport fans as part of a research grant from the Albers School of Business and Economics at Seattle University. Among other research questions, we were curious to see the level of responsibility that people place on various entities (e.g., government, business, religious, sport and individuals) to address and act on climate change.
We found that sport organizations were evaluated at the lowest levels of responsibility. Interestingly, sport fans believed sport organizations should be held responsible as compared to the evaluation of their non-sport fan counterparts. This difference, however, was not statistically different. As with many initial research questions, the findings bring up new questions to explore and this situation is no different.
Why would sport and non-sport fans alike, accordingly to this sample, hold sport organizations to a lower level of responsibility? Is it because of the assumed or known differences of the environmental impact of sport organizations to others? Or do individuals not see sport as an active contributor in the broader and global climate action discussion? How might we move the sport sector as a whole and individual organizations to value and convey climate action? One process to do so is called the process of moralization.
Process of moralization
Moralization is a process of changing the minds of individuals or social systems to consider previously taken-for-granted aspects (i.e., consideration for the environment), and converting this interest into active decision-making processes and, in some cases, the development of policies. The process of moralization considers micro (individual) to macro-level (organizational or cultural) preferences and values, which are motivated by social and economic means. These motivations are the core principles for corporate social responsibility and a shared responsibility for societal change within the sport sector.
We see the environmental movement in the sport sector blossoming, but what is keeping the sport sector so far behind other business sectors? That is, the sport sector has a natural fit (pardon the pun) to protect and preserve the environment, yet the stated values of the sector do not match its actions on the whole.
Why then don’t we see or expect (perhaps demand) sport organizations to report on what they are doing? Why do fans so easily accept a press release that their team has offset their carbon emissions, but not expect data – or at least more details – behind those calculations? Why doesn’t the fan ask how much carbon the team emits, what are the major sources of these emissions, and what they are going to do to reduce it? How does their offsetting program work? These questions will advance the process of moralization across the sport sector to more widely address climate change and the sector’s contributions and solutions to it.
Ultimately, if we embrace environmental sustainability science, or at least data, then we should buy into the notion of transparency as well and the data behind our organization’s or event’s environmental impact. Perhaps we have a thing or two to learn from our publicly traded counterparts that are regularly releasing sustainability reports.