Sport (Studies) and Climate Change

Here in the US Midwest (Iowa to be exact) full-fledged summer is now less than one week away. Okay, so most folks would probably say it already is summer. The kids are out of school, pools are open, farmer’s markets and arts festivals are packed with leisurely loungers, and it has already hit 90 degrees. On the sports calendar, the World Cup is under way and baseball season is heading into its sweet spot. But call me a purist. I’m saving my start of summer high-fives for Sunday, June 21, the official solstice.

I’m a dad with two of those youngsters out of school for the summer. I have a pretty nice set-up the next couple of months, working half-days in the mornings before picking up the kids from their “camps” around lunch time. We’ll spend our afternoons hitting up the usual spots – libraries, playgrounds, splash pads, pools, play dates and parks. They’ll have to suffer through the occasional rainy day (or is it me? arts & crafts and I do not usually get along) and my penchant for continuous streaming of baseball games and Iowa Public Radio. But overall, we’re good to go and the weather is on cue as a more or less lovely Midwestern backdrop for these upcoming hazy summer days.

For now. Honestly, I’m quite concerned with the illusion of these idyllic-feeling, nostalgia inspired summers. In the back (front?) of my mind I know that at the current rate of human-caused global warming, instead of about four days over 95 degrees each year, by century’s end most Midwesterners and Iowans can expect somewhere between 35 to 90 days at that threshold. But it’s not like everything else will just stay the same only hotter. A much warmer world will have serious implications is creating havoc for many sports and outdoor recreational pursuits, including activities ranging from marathons to fly fishing, football to tennis, and come winter, ice hockey to the Iditarod Trail Dog Sled Race.

Maybe I need to slow down. For some, notably the Heartland Institute, human-caused climate change is a “myth” with “no scientific consensus.” I prefer Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’s response to climate change deniers and doubters. He summarizes, “you don’t need people’s opinions on a fact” and then highlights the absurdity of the debate over whether climate change is actually taking place by suggesting we might as well poll people on questions such as “are there hats?”

Here though, I want to outline a discussion of some of the ways sport studies might, could, or should engage with climate change. This post is not about tracking major professional sports leagues’ carbon footprint or conversely, more sustainable or “green” ways of doing sport that reduce its participation in the fossil fuel industries (though analyzing both certainly has merit). Nor does this post take up adventure or lifestyle sports whose participants conduct their activity in, on or around natural landscapes of earth, sea, and sky. Instead, I am inspired by the radical, as in get-to-the-root, approach taken by author and activist Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. For Klein, the task at hand (in short, drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions to prevent catastrophe) is akin to overcoming a three-headed monster addicted to the sources of its own demise. One side of the beast requires radically changing stringent worldviews, or “the stories we tell about our place on earth” that govern how we live. In the middle of the beast is how our economies currently function. The third and perhaps most daunting challenge is how quickly and urgently those ideologies and structures need to change.

In what follows I engage in a brief dialogue with some of Klein’s ideas, in particular considering how sport is part of those narratives we humans tell ourselves about our place on earth. Given an understanding of the level of planetary destruction and unequal distribution of social inequalities perpetuated by climate change that imperil the most vulnerable and poor, what ways has sport historically been conceived and implemented, especially in its powerful North American global capitalist forms, that contribute to the climate crisis? The following discussion is neither an exhaustive nor perfunctory list of categories and suggestions, but I do hope it represents some responses sport studies scholars could explore to further engage the field in what the United Nations referred to in 2007 as “the defining challenge of our age.”

At its center or “mainstream,” sport has a fierce resistance to transformative and just change

Klein is clear about the kind of change she envisions as necessary to on the one hand, avoid total collapse, and on the other, equitably prepare for the coming droughts, floods, storms, and other weather-related disasters that will afflict those most vulnerable yet least responsible for the calamities. This “polluter pays” model to finance the most dire of climate change consequences is based on a sense of fairness and social justice, and she develops a bullet-point list (with clear and strongly supported citations) of how the $2 trillion annually could be generated through tax measures, phased out fossil fuel subsidies, and slashed military budgets. Unfortunately, Klein argues “our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share” (p. 119). She contends that a robust social movement that revives the “lost arts” of long-term public planning and an ability to confront powerful corporations is required for swift action to break down the fossil fuel industry’s free market rules. What role could sport play in helping to build such a movement?

In different articles and contexts, feminist sport scholars Mary Louise Adams and Samantha King reached similar conclusions that it does not appear as if most participatory sport and/or other sports contexts (media narratives and products, professional sport, elite-level sport) have much to offer (or will anytime soon) for the development of a just and humane physical culture.[1] I do not think they negate sport as a potential site of positive transformation or development for certain individuals or groups in the right contexts or setting. Sport scholars have established that sport serves as a site that both reproduces and contests dominant ideologies. Rather, King and Adams seem concerned with the fierce resistance of mainstream sport, or the “center” of sport, to transformative and just change; and secondarily, how sport or physical culture might be used for justice in several areas if, as a pervasive cultural form, it is articulated mostly to harmful and oppressive structures.

Critiques of sport and “investing in sport’s disruption”

As Adams implores, “sport is one of the most (if not the most) pervasive cultural forms on the planet; we need to change what it signifies,” and therefore we must also “invest in its disruption.”[2] Sport still signifies an exclusive space of power, performance, competition and domination. Increasingly, those who can access sport are those who can afford the time and luxury to do so. And, as King and Adams point out alongside many others, once one gains access to sport what they might expect to find are historically and culturally pervasive forms of inequality linked with race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, age, and so forth.

Many sport scholars search for ways that sport, as an embodied physical activity and practice, can be used for potentially transformative (social, cultural, political, humane, counter-ideological) action, yet often draw attention to the ways it falls short because it is so fraught with damaging forms of inequality that privilege young, white, Western, upper-class, heteronormative, (exceptionally) able-bodied men. But what about walking? Can walking tell us more of the stories that have been silenced? Walking, while certainly not existing in a vacuum separate from power is a more inclusive form of bodily movement, though there are important problematics and limitations that need to be explored regarding ableism. Can walking serve as a starting point for an inclusivity that denies at least some of the more strict boundaries posed by participation in sport-specific activities? Can walking work around other sports or physical activities requisite access to privileges of leagues, travel, training, coaching, facilities, fields, equipment, and ability to pay fees? Could walking unite rather than separate by age, ability, race, class, gender, sexuality, and other identity categories? Exploring those who walk in protest marches or transcontinental journeys, for various social injustices and inequities, might be a fruitful site for examination.

Adams’ and King’s findings formed and crystallized a sense of the limits to critiquing sport only through oppositional frameworks (e.g., agency and constraint, culture and structure) and that it is time to start building “sport” in new or different ways. Part of doing this would require modifying the study of sport and physical activity in cultural and institutional power frameworks, to include “nature,” a realm and concept that seems under-theorized in the field currently. As Klein contends, “the culture that triumphed in our corporate age pits us against the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is . . . to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world . . . that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it” (60-61).

The dominant narratives of US/Western sport mirror those behind the forces driving human-caused climate change

A very powerful set of economic elites control the political economy of communications technologies, media production, content distribution and dissemination, and thus, possess vast and immense control over the terms of consumption. As Steven Jackson notes, networked, digital consumers are now within reach or contact of advertisers and corporations in a context of perpetual immediacy [3]. While the uses consumers’ make of digital plenitude is an under-studied part of this equation, the agency these technologies and consumption patterns have to act on us has also been under-studied and under-acknowledged. This sense of ontological being, one that decenters human agency, is a key aspect of the theoretical underpinning for climate related social justice projects. If agency is not purely a privileged human trait, how do we rethink the ethical consequences of our actions and choices? What should be our political actions or choices with a revised sense of ontological being?

For Jackson, we live in a world of global consumer capitalism in which consumption (advertising, promotional culture, sport, etc.) distracts, blinds, and worst of all, encourages us (or socializes? manufactures consent?) to ignore and/or not care about climate change, poverty, discrimination, violence, and war. We should be concerned with sport media’s central role in aiding and abetting the sheltering of these outrages from critique, uprising, or revolt, namely the “real power relations at play between the profits of global corporations, excessive and needless consumption, and exploited third-world labor.” [4] Ignored or trivialized activist-interventions for climate action and social justice that take aim at the fossil-fuel industry, for example, could apply broadly to the myriad ways corporate power works to prevent people from intervening into making the world a more just and humane place.

Elites who control most of the information-entertainment distribution present a narrative of being elite through consumption, and that somehow being elite relieves or places one above the responsibility or pressures to act politically. As King demonstrates in Pink Ribbons, Inc., cause-related marketing has convinced many that their consumption choices are acts of social justice. Being elite ostensibly affords one the ability to justify or rationalize ignoring or dismissing altogether proliferating forms of violence in several spheres of our social and environmental worlds.

Mainstream, commercial sport and advertising supports messages of limitless growth at all costs, through themes such as “no pain, no gain”, “no fear”, “2nd place is first loser”, and so on. Sport competition at this highly-disseminated and consumed level is about power and domination over natural limits and the natural world, bending and breaking down one’s opponent at will without concern for the consequences. It does not require much of an intellectual leap to contemplate how these oft-repeated mantras and values link with the “denigration of collective action and veneration of the profit motive” that Klein argues “have infiltrated virtually every government on the planet, every major media organization, every university, our very souls” (p. 62). That is, if we give in to what Klein refers to as “neoliberalism’s single most damaging legacy . . . and central lie — that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines” (p. 62).

3-pronged approach from American studies, sport studies, and cultural studies

By making connections across disparate fields, theories, and methods, sport studies could make a significant contribution to building the kinds of alliances needed to engender the kind of social movement needed to address climate change. One of Klein’s correctives is to environmentalists’ history of behaving as if no issue is as important as theirs. She suggests viewing climate changes as a frame rather than an issue. A frame that “neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency” (p. 153). In the end, climate change is about systems changes including but extending beyond the ecological. Klein quotes an explanation from Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Oakland-based Asian Pacific Environmental Network, that nicely frames the climate justice struggle metaphorically as a “fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world that we want. We can’t sit this one out, not because we have too much to lose but because we have too much to gain” (p. 155-156). I am not sure I could find a better statement for why I applied to graduate school over five years ago. Thankfully, my training thus far has led me to see connections between and among American studies, cultural studies, and sport studies as a way to participate in the fight outlined by Yoshitani:

  • Sport studies focus on sport and/or embodied physical activities that work for transformative social and political change, with walking and protest marches as but one method for action, as well as walking itself as an activity that does not produce as much damage to ecosystems and fosters time for reflection, movement, and “health” (holistically considered);
  • American studies/activist-inspired work in the realm of environmental justice and unequal distribution of environmental/social burdens;
  • Cultural studies/sport media studies critique of networked digital media political economy and consumption patterns; critique of powerful capitalist institutions that foster linkages of consumption with elite-ness and erasure of violence, injustice, and inequalities

And with that, it’s just about time for me to go pick up my daughters. I wonder, what should we do today?


[1] King, “Contesting the Closet: Sheryl Swoopes, Racialized Sexuality, and Media Culture,” in Commodified and Criminalized: New Racism and African Americans in Contemporary Sports, ed. David J. Leonard and C. Richard King (New York: Romand & Littlefield, 2011), 218; Adams, “No Taste for Rough-and-Tumble-Play: Sport Discourses, the DSM, and the Regulation of Effeminacy,” GLQ 19, 4 (2013): 537. Also given the TIDES reports, equitable hiring of women and racial minorities in the NCAA, sport media, and pro sports leagues is still far from a reality. According to Coakley, Sports in Society: Issues and Controversies (11th ed.), (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2014), powerful white men of the economic elite still have immense power to establish the purpose and organization of sport as well as disseminate mediated information and entertainment about the meanings and orientation of sport. See also

[2] Adams, “No Taste,” 537.

[3] Jackson, “Reflections on Communication and Sport: On Advertising and Promotional Culture.” Communication & Sport 1, no. 1/2 (2013): 100-112.

[4] ibid.

Dain TePoel is a PhD Candidate in the Department of American Studies at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at

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