Sports and Sustainability: A Pro Football Player’s Journey into Environmental Activism

By Ovie Mughelli, Retired Professional Football Player, Founder and President of the Ovie Mughelli Foundation

The superhero that shaped me into an environmentalist      

When I was a kid, superheroes were my passion. Batman, Superman, the Incredible Hulk — I loved them all. They made me feel like I could do anything. But, among all these superheroes there weren’t many that looked like me — there weren’t many people of color. However, on the TV series Captain Planet, I came across a Black superhero named Kwame. From the first time I saw it, I was hooked. It showed racially diverse people from different socioeconomic statuses all coming together to make a difference and change the world. Captain Planet gave me my first education on the environment, and that left a seed in me.

Fast forward to high school, college, and the NFL, where I finally had the resources and platform to really make a difference. It was at this point in my life, when I was a professional athlete, that I met the founders of Captain Planet. Meeting them, I transformed from a 25-year-old grown man to a little kid again. That environmental seed that was planted so many years back when I could see a piece of myself in Kwame, was once again nurtured.

I stayed in touch with the chairperson of the Captain Planet Foundation, Laura Turner Seydel, who invited me to shadow her at environmental seminars, workshops, conventions, and conferences. Just being around the environmental community was eye-opening because a lot of environmental issues affect people that look like me, yet, there weren’t many people of color in those spaces. And that really riled me up, which wasn’t lost on Laura, who is a staunch advocate of environmental justice. 

This was the moment that I began to make the connection that certain communities, because of their race or their socioeconomic status, were disproportionately impacted by environmental injustices. Questions arose in my mind. Why are they living next to hog wastes or landfills or coal plants? Why is there cancer alley? Why are there several Flint, Michigans before Flint, Michigan even became a thing? When hurricanes hit, why do they affect communities of color a lot more than everyone else? Environmental justice is social justice. So I decided to take the bull by the horns and start using my platform in the sports world to promote sustainability.

The environmental hero I’ve become

Captain planet gave me heroes in the environmental movement who inspired me to be interested in the environment, but it wasn’t until my daughter was born that I felt called to be an environmental hero myself. My daughter came into this world almost two months early and she was a little under two pounds. We waited months to take our baby home, and when the day finally arrived, we couldn’t:  because of a low level smog alert, the air quality in Atlanta was not safe for my baby to breathe. And that blew me away.

At first, I kind of played into the ignorance of thinking that climate change and environmental issues weren’t that big of a deal. But after my daughter was born, I realized that literally there is nothing that can protect you — can insulate you — from what’s going on with this planet.

In so many parts of my life, protecting others has been my job. When I was a fullback for the Atlanta Falcons, part of my job was to block for quarterback Matt Ryan — if he got hit, it was my fault. Similarly, as a father, it’s my job to protect my baby — when she suffers from the impacts of climate change, I feel responsible. So, I decided to do something about it.

 The heroes I’m shaping

After my daughter was born, everything changed and launched me into the eco-champion, the eco-warrior, I am today. I really want to do for others what Captain Planet did for me — be an environmental hero who can inspire the next generation of environmental heroes. I’d like to show kids and adults how the environment affects their lives and the lives of those they love.

In the long run, I want my work to catalyze a movement. I’m hoping that I will be one of the first of many athletes, especially NFL players, who are working to protect our planet. A lot of athletes are passionate about social justice, but don’t realize that the communities they are working with are also disproportionately impacted by pollution, climate-change-induced storms, and other environmental injustices.

So, I started a nonprofit organization called the Ovie Mughelli Foundation that aims to get kids involved in environmentalism and sustainability, particularly those kids who may not have otherwise been involved with the movement. Through generous donations and support our Green Camps teach on-the-field sports drills, rules of the game, and team building incorporating STEM activities to educate and promote sustainability beyond the field. Moreover, I created a STEM and sustainability comic book starring GridIron Green as the superhero, and it teaches STEM skills, stewardship, and practical lifestyle changes. Through sports and comic, I want it to get to the point where kids are saying “Hey Mom, Dad, if you love us, you gotta do your part to clean up the planet.” The Ovie Mughelli Foundation’s goal is to reach 20,000 kids annually through one of their four programs.

For me, investing in youth is so important because young people have so much potential to learn about the difference they can make and shape the movement as they grow. The earlier you can let them know that they can be a part of the solution — that they can change what’s going on right now — the better.

Every day, I work with youth and I’m impressed by their ability to hold my feet to the fire and really ask the tough questions about what it will take to build a better world. Kids tell the truth. And the truth is, what adults are doing with our environment is irresponsible. Youth can change the culture around the environmental movement. They can change their households. They can change the community. They can change the world. For me — and the new generation of heroes I’m working with — environmental justice is social justice and in order to successfully fight climate change and pollution, we will all need to be Captain Planet in our own lives.

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To support or donate to the Ovie Mughelli Foundation in your own personal way and learn more about these valuable programs you can visit: omfgreen.org and take one of the challenges.

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