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Fearmongering over footballs
The fossil fuel industry says footballs couldn't exist without oil. It's a lie designed to prevent us from imagining a more sustainable world.
Last week, The Daily Show highlighted an oil and gas commercial that implied footballs could not exist without fossil fuels.
The ad from pipeline giant Energy Transfer shows a player teeing up a football for a kick, only for the ball to vanish into thin air. A few seconds later, a football jersey vanishes from its display case.
“Our world would be unrecognizable if the products we rely on just *snap* disappeared,” it says.
Though the commercial doesn’t directly mention climate change or climate policy, it’s clear that’s what it was meant to address. Last year, the world’s largest consortium of climate scientists said the deadly, irreversible effects of climate change can only be prevented through a “substantial reduction in fossil fuel use.”
Because that solution threatens fossil fuel profits, oil companies are increasingly making this argument that modern life’s pleasures couldn’t exist without fossil fuels. It’s designed to convince Americans that solving climate change would be far more painful than allowing climate change to worsen.
Like so many other fossil fuel industry claims, it is a lie, designed to prevent us from imagining a more sustainable world.
How to make a fossil-free football
The entire premise of Energy Transfer’s commercial is a red herring. No climate activist or politician is actually trying to take away footballs to solve climate change. But for the sake of argument, let’s consider the ad’s claim. Would footballs really have to disappear without fossil fuels?
We asked Madeleine Orr, a sports ecologist at Loughborough University London, who is developing the world's first Masters program in sport and sustainability. “Football wouldn't exist had it not been for oil,” she conceded. “It’s the turf products that they play on. It’s all of their padding. It’s their helmets.” And of course, it’s in the ball.
“But I wouldn’t say that you can’t have football without oil,” she added. “We currently don’t, but we could.” All it would require is a little innovation and will.
Take the game ball. Most of it is made from leather. For Wilson game balls–the only name in the NFL game–the petrochemical process comes in when the cow hides are tanned at the Horween Leather factory in Chicago. More petrochemicals come in at Wilson’s factory in Ada, Ohio, where workers sew the leather panels with a cotton and vinyl backing. A polyurethane bladder is then inserted into the ball, and it’s laced up with polyester thread.
A fossil-free football would require alternatives for these petrochemicals–namely, the lining, the bladder, and the laces. Fortunately, bioplastics made from sources such as sugars or starches are a fast-growing industry. Valued at $11.6 billion in 2022, the global bioplastics industry is projected to grow to $43.7 billion in 2030.
“There's an energy transition happening, but there's the sustainable materials transition happening at the same time,” said Sasha Calder, head of impact at Geno, one of many growing bioplastics companies. Geno’s latest partnership with lululemon replaces the nylon in their athletic wear with a nylon product made from sugars from sugar cane, sugar beets, or corn.
Wilson Sporting Goods has even suggested it plans to be part of that transition. In a statement to HEATED, spokesperson Sarah Houseknecht said the company would be including bioplastics in a new line, which includes footballs. “The more sustainable solutions we are incorporating are a bio-based EVA from sugar cane and utilizing more rPET fibers recycled from water bottles,” she said.
Bioplastics, like many climate solutions, are far from environmentally perfect. They are not a catch-all solution to the plastic problem. And implementing them on a large scale would likely be costly. But these are the challenges that come with trying to create a world with substantially less fossil fuels.
That world is possible, despite what the fossil fuel industry wants you to believe.
Using America’s sport to fearmonger and mislead
In addition to lying about the possibility of fossil-free footballs, Energy Transfer’s disappearing football commercial attempts to mislead viewers about what climate activists actually want.
In a world where the U.S. actually took meaningful steps to solve climate change, replacing the petrochemicals in footballs would be fairly low on the priority list. Increasing renewable energy capacity, increasing sustainable public transportation, improving farming practices and energy efficiency, and protecting old-growth forests are at the top of most climate policy wish lists.
Even when it comes to reducing emissions in the sports world, “We have bigger fish to fry,” Orr said. Her climate priorities for the sports world include hosting smaller events and reducing travel. After all, 85 percent of emissions created by major sports events come from fans, not teams.
The reason Energy Transfer’s commercial includes a disappearing football is not because it believes footballs may disappear. It’s because the company knows the image will buy them some desperately-needed social license to operate.
In order to continue extracting and profiting from climate-destroying fossil fuels, oil executives have admitted that social buy-in for their products is necessary. And there is no better way to buy social license than marketing yourself as inextricable from America’s most popular sport.
But America’s most popular sport can exist without fossil fuels. What it can’t exist without is a liveable climate.
You can’t have football without a planet
Over the past 25 years, 68 football players across all levels have died from heat stroke, according to the University of North Carolina. Eleven of those players died in the past five years. Players are exposed to extreme heat in the preseason, and fire and hurricane seasons after kickoff. Football games have been canceled or moved because of extreme weather, and entire teams have been relocated. “There's a range of challenges that are consistently butting up against football season,” said Orr.
Climate change greatly increases the risk of death and injury to players, damage to stadiums, and loss of investment. To protect their players, their fans, and themselves, team owners and investors have to face the climate crisis.
“I'm not suggesting that football being hurt by climate change is the worst problem of climate change,” Orr said. “But it is something that the sports sector is going to have to think about a little more carefully moving forward.”
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