Kinesiology doctoral candidate Madeleine Orr takes the Green movement to the sports world

Madeleine Orr,
founder and co-director,
Sport Ecology Group

The Green movement—environmental impacts, sustainable practices, and even recycling—has traditionally not been considered a high priority by professional sports organizations and their event organizers. But that’s been changing over the past few years—just ask Madeleine Orr.

She is the founder and co-director of a new organization, the Sport Ecology Group (SEG), which launched April 22 on Earth Day 2019. The SEG is a research collective of eight sport scholars from around the country who are committed to expanding the conversation about sport and the natural environment. The group provides access to high-quality research with academic and public impact, and is focused on serving as a catalyst for industry/academy knowledge exchange.

Orr is also a School of Kinesiology doctoral candidate, advised by Yuhei Inoue, sport management associate professor. She is writing her dissertation which she plans to defend this fall, she’s producing a podcast, Climate Champions, which will launch on June 10, and she currently has commitments to speak at six different international conferences in the 2019-2020 academic year. She has been deeply interested in the effects of a changing environment on sports since she lived in France for a year after graduating with her first master’s degree.

A green Christmas
During that time, Orr was the overseas operations coordinator for a ski company and her area covered France, Switzerland, and Italy. She was based at Serre Chavalier, a major ski resort in southeastern France. “We had a green Christmas that year, which was hard,” she says. “The ski towns and shops were open only on weekends when extra tourists were around. The ski teams were training on artificial surfaces. Morale was low.” Like any serious academic, her experience prompted her to turn to the research. “When I went to find research on managing seasonal unpredictability in sport or managing hard seasons, there wasn’t any,” she says. “There is lots of research to confirm that climate change is affecting the amount of snow, quality of snowpack, and predictability of season length in the future, but nobody has done much research on how to respond to those changes.”

Orr says there are barriers to starting the conversation about climate effects on sport in the sport community. “Sport managers don’t want to talk about climate change because it’s perceived as too political,” she says. “Also, most sport managers were never trained to be environmental managers or land managers, so they don’t have the right tools to address these challenges.”

An idea that grew
Enter the Sport Ecology Group (SEG). The idea grew from sharing ideas with like-minded academics at national conferences, where Orr met co-director Brian McCoullough from the Albers School of Business and Economics in Seattle, along with six other colleagues who were frustrated by the lack of available information on the topic. McCoullough and another SEG member are co-editors of the Routledge Handbook of Sport and the Environment.

“I met most of my colleagues at NASSM conferences [North American Society of Sport Management], and two on Twitter,” says Orr. “Everything has been online. Our goal is to present useful, bite-sized bits of information to people who were never given the tools to learn about sustainability.”

Although the group was officially launched on Earth Day, they were hard at work well before then, activating “Green Team” activities at the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament for men in Minneapolis and women in Tampa Bay.

Four pillars
Along with disseminating research and resources, SEG members are establishing four pillars that will drive their work: research, teaching, public education and industry liaison. “We want to be at the forefront of the latest knowledge, and develop resources for teachers to incorporate in the classroom,” Orr says. “Through social media, we can work on educating fans and make information available to people who haven’t been exposed to sustainability practices. The website has every topic available for people interested in learning about sport ecology. There are currently 106 articles on the site and 100 more in progress.”

Goals and the future
Does the SEG have an overarching goal? “I wouldn’t be Dr. Inoue’s graduate student if I didn’t have goals and timelines,” she laughs. “We do have a five-year strategic plan. We are kickstarting campaigns based in North America, Europe, Japan, Australia and Kenya, and developing the process, plan, and media outlets we’ll be using. We’ve developed good relationships with the Sustainability Report and Green Sports Blog, who have been promoting our work to industry professionals and who will continue to be close partners in getting the word out about what we do.”

Orr, whose thesis topic is on the vulnerability of sport organizations in the face of climate change, has an infectious energy and enthusiasm. She is determined that research in the area of climate change effect be made accessible and relevant to all stakeholders, inside and outside academia. She says her experience winning CEHD’s 3-Minute Thesis competition in 2017 taught her that she could communicate complicated, somewhat inaccessible information into accessible content. She says, “Sometimes to communicate research to a larger audience, you just have to shoot in the dark, start with one approach and see if it works, then alter the approach as you go to suit each audience.”

Orr has some other exciting opportunities in her future. She has been offered a tenure-track position at SUNY-Cortland beginning in the fall, and hopes to have her doctorate completed by then.

“I’m loving what I do,” she says, “and I’m still learning what I do.”

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