Sports, Tradition and Climate Change

Beloved American sports traditions rely a lot on the weather, which, thanks to climate change, means they’re about to get a lot more complicated.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

ESPN just published a feature on “reimagining the college football calendar,” in which their writers brainstormed how to make college football more efficient and palatable — especially in the wake of all the upheaval with conference realignment and athletes regaining their name, image and likeness rights. Their hypothetical calendar suggests starting training camp one week earlier than is standard, a suggestion that could very well make sense for everyone except the athletes themselves, who then would have to push themselves to their limits even deeper into the sweltering heart of the summer.

As USA Today columnist Dan Wolken put it on Twitter, “If you want to actually reimagine the college football calendar, I’d start with the reality that extreme heat and climate change is going to have a major impact.” Weirdly (or not, depending on your perception of college football fandom in general) he started getting roasted as a “woke liberal” or whatever, to which he then again correctly stated, “When games get cancelled for hurricanes and wildfires and when a lot of schools struggle to fill seats for 1/3 to 1/2 of the season because nobody wants to sit in concrete pits in 100 degree temps, I’m sure that’s just the woke politics talking.”

It is hard to reason with people who don’t want to believe climate change is happening. Where I live, in Dallas, we’re having one of the hottest summers on record — but, as the naysayers will quickly tell you, not the hottest. That title goes to 1980, which is one of the few things I’ve ever heard of that makes me glad I wasn’t alive then. 

But the alarming signs of climate change aren’t really the number of days over 100 degrees (although, I would love to have seen fewer of those) or record temperatures. Some are more subtle, like the rising overnight temperature (July had Dallas’ warmest average low temperature on record), or just easier to ignore, like the “exceptional” drought. In other places around the country, there are even bigger departures from the norm with heatwaves and floods making summer weather more extreme. “Summer in America is becoming hotter, longer and more dangerous,” the Washington Post concluded in a recent story, and summer isn’t even when the majority of hurricanes and forest fires hit.

Football, which captures the hearts and minds of many, many Americans from late summer through the fall, is usually played outdoors. Some NFL teams have domes, and most have indoor practice facilities — but enormous outdoor stadiums are one of the trademarks of college and high school football, as is tailgating and everything else that comes with it. Another cherished aspect of football is that it is played through all elements except lightning (and surely some old-timers wish the players would power through), forcing players to scuffle in everything from extreme heat to snow — conditions that, it should be noted, always come with increased injury risk. 

So what happens, then, when the extremes get more extreme? Is pushing through sweltering heat or being forced to inhale wildfire smoke really a sign of toughness and grit? Or should we start to prepare ourselves for a new set of sports rituals — ones designed around both safety and sustainability?

As Wolken noted, college sports in particular aren’t typically amenable to change until it is absolutely necessary and typically far too late. But among those of us in a position to sound alarm, it is certainly the moment to do so if only to persuade those who can still hear it that things have to change — that insisting on business as usual is already untenable