The effects of climate change are often thought of through an economic lens, such as through the number and types of jobs that will be affected. However, if one takes a step back, it becomes evident that climate change adversely affects most aspects of daily life — including professional sports. While athletic competition seemingly has little to do with climate change, there is a nuanced relationship that could drastically affect the way humans view and play sports.
The recent wave of wildfires on the West Coast has prompted a discussion about the handling of scheduled games amid these unexpected environmental constraints, specifically how these constraints may hinder athletes.
Temperature, for example, is a very significant factor in athletic performance. As the Earth’s temperature continues to rise, sports leagues have had to more frequently implement certain policies to limit the duration of time that athletes are allowed to play once a certain heat threshold is hit. Moreover, officials in sports such as cricket and tennis can pause matches if the temperature is deemed too high to compete in safely.
Aside from breaking up the natural flow of sports, such intense temperatures can also lead to health complications for athletes that can temporarily or permanently affect their ability to compete. Heat exhaustion and severe dehydration are just some of the many dangerous side effects of strenuous exercise in high temperatures.
Air quality is also paramount to the discussion of climate change’s impact on sports. Athletes rely on the ability to maintain high oxygenation levels in order to perform at their best. However, as wildfires continue to spread across the West Coast of the United States and factories and fossil fuel constantly pollute the atmosphere, the air that athletes breathe is greatly compromised. As athletes continue to inhale these harmful pollutants, their respiratory systems operate less efficiently, meaning that their endurance drops. The pollutants impede their ability to concentrate and lower the overall quality of competition.
The recent wildfires have exacerbated debates about whether collegiate and professional sports games should be cancelled due to environmental factors. In the NFL, the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers, for instance, continued to play as scheduled in September, despite unhealthy air quality. According to NFL protocols on air quality, the league will be prepared to relocate a game if there is “definitive evidence” that the AQI will stay above 200 for a significant period of time, which includes game day. “If it gets to 200, that would be a huge deal,” 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said during an appearance on KNBR before a scheduled game, per Pro Football Talk. “I know when it’s above 150 that does affect a certain group of people that happen to be higher risk, pre-existing conditions. If it got above 150 you could lose a few players, but 200 is the mark where you can’t go out there.”
MLB’s Seattle Mariners, on the other hand, had a string of home games moved to different cities in September due to extremely unhealthy air quality in Seattle from wildfires. However, this was only after MLB received criticism for allowing the Mariners to play a home game against the Oakland Athletics on Sept. 14 with an Air Quality Index as high as 284, which is considered very unhealthy by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Multiple players expressed concern about the conditions of the Sept. 14 game. “I’m a healthy 22-year-old,” Jesus Luzardo, Oakland’s starting pitcher, said after the game. “I shouldn’t be gasping for air or missing oxygen. I’ll leave it at that.”
Substantial sustainability efforts are necessary to protect the environment so that athletes can continue to compete at their highest potential. As climate change continues to have increasing impacts on society, both collegiate and professional leagues will be forced to adapt to unforeseen circumstances.