Sporting events create a ton of waste. Stadiums like this one are trying to fix that.

The people of San Francisco weren't going to settle for yet another concrete smog-factory.

It was 2012, and it was time for a new football stadium. Legendary Candlestick Park had been home to the 49ers for decades, but the stadium was over 50 years old and falling apart.

Replacing Candlestick — site of " The Catch" — in the hearts and minds of fans would be hard enough, but 49ers Project Executive Jack Hill, who would oversee design and construction of the new stadium, told me there was added pressure to build something that was good for the environment, too.


This Niners fan isn't interested in your jive-turkey new stadium. GIF from the NFL.

"It was important to our ownership, the York family, that we incorporate a lot of green features," he said. "Because of where we are in the country, a lot of the community is very ... environmentally active."

Translation: San Franciscans wanted a stadium they could be as proud of as they are of their team.

So Hill and the gang got to work, and what they came up with was nearly unprecedented in American professional sports venues.

Levi's Stadium was the first NFL stadium to open with LEED Gold certification, one of the top sustainability achievements.

Photo by Jim G/Flickr.

On July 17, 2014, after about two years of construction, Levi's Stadium officially opened its doors. From day one, it's had a stamp of approval from the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit that champions buildings "that complement our environment and enhance our communities."

The structure became the first stadium to earn the elite Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold status, a certification based on a 69-point scorecard. The 49ers' new home currently meets 41 of the requirements...

...which is just a long-winded way of saying, "This stadium rocks."

How? Let us count the ways:

Photo by Travis Wise/Flickr.

  • 1,186 solar panels that create about half a megawatt of energy each year — enough to power the stadium's 10 regularly scheduled home NFL games.
  • Charging stations for electric vehicles. 'Nuff said.
  • An incredible water reclamation system. Jack Hill told me, "About 85% of the water we use on site comes from a reclaimed water source, including for irrigation and all of our toilets. It's huge during drought season."
  • A lush rooftop garden. Not only is it nice to look at — these low-water-usage plants sure beat the black tar most buildings use on the roof.

The rooftop garden gives fans a relaxing place to stroll and keeps the roof cool. Photo by Jim G/Flickr.

  • Bicycle valet and lockers to encourage locals to bike to the stadium via a nearby bike path instead of driving.
  • Proximity to public transit. Hill said about 10-15% of Levi's Stadium patrons arrive on mass transit, such as Caltrain, which is a big point of emphasis in getting LEED certified. (He also said they're still working out some of the kinks here that have caused backups leaving the stadium.)

Plus lots of other odds and ends, like using high-efficiency LED lights in over 40% of the stadium's fixtures, sourcing construction materials from sustainable wood forests, and the venue's robust recycling program.

But it's fair to ask: Is this real impact? Or is this greenwashing?

Jack Hill told me that LEED certification has been common for commercial buildings for a long time, but it's really just starting to gain traction in sports stadiums. And it looks like he's right.

But the trend sure is growing fast. And it's raising a lot of questions.

A massive wall of solar panels and wind turbines helps power the Philadelphia Eagles' Lincoln Financial Field, which received silver certification in 2013. GIF from NRG/YouTube.

In 2011, Apogee Stadium at the University of North Texas received LEED Platinum certification, its main claim to fame being three towering wind turbines that feed the stadium with renewable energy.


Wind turbines churn outside Apogee Stadium. GIF from O3 Energy Solutions/YouTube.

In 2008, D.C.'s Nationals Park became the first Major League Baseball stadium to receive the Silver certification. A few years later, AT&T Park in San Francisco made enough updates to earn the same honor.

And there are many more examples in both college and pro venues.

Nationals Park earned its Silver in 2008. Photo by Rudi Riet/Flickr.

But some have argued that things like solar panels and using recycled materials in construction are just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the massive amounts of energy and waste involved in hosting large-scale sporting events.

I'm honestly not sure you can ever make stadium sports a positive or even neutral thing for the environment. But as the demand grows for new stadiums filled to the brim with the latest technology and amenities, you have to applaud the people like Jack Hill who are working hard to reduce the overall impact.

And maybe, just maybe, their efforts will have an unseen effect on the fans. Jeff Koseff, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, told the Mercury News:

"When 68,000 people go to a stadium and see the 49ers trying to make a difference, there is evidence, I think, that they will start thinking about sustainability and the environment also."

If he's right, then the 49ers just struck gold.

Heroes

Whenever someone's words or behavior are called out as racist, a few predictable responses always follow. One is to see the word "racist" as a vicious personal attack. Two is to vehemently deny that whatever was said or done was racist. And three is to pull out the dictionary definition of racism to prove that the words or behavior weren't racist.

Honestly, as soon as someone refers to the dictionary when discussing racism, it's clear that person has never delved deeply into trying to understand racism. It's a big old red flag, every time.

I'm not an expert on race relations, but I've spent many years learning from people who are. And I've learned that the reality of racism is nuanced and complex, and resorting to a short dictionary definition completely ignores that fact. The dictionary can't include all of the ways racism manifests in individuals and society, and the limitations of dictionary definitions make it a poor tool for discussing the topic.

Since "racism" is such a loaded term for many people, let's look at such limitations through a different complex word. Let's take "anxiety." According to Merriam-Webster, "anxiety" is defined as "apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness, usually over an impending or anticipated ill."

Now imagine thinking that you understand everything that encompasses anxiety from reading that dictionary definition. Imagine thinking you could recognize the signs of anxiety in someone based on that definition alone. Ridiculous, right? The dictionary doesn't explain that some people's anxiety manifests as anger, even though it does. It doesn't say that anxiety sometimes manifests as withdrawal or aloofness. It doesn't say that you often won't see obvious signs of fear or nervousness in someone experiencing anxiety.

The dictionary doesn't offer anything close to the reality of what anxiety is or looks like. It would be silly to say that someone isn't experiencing anxiety because they're not clearly showing signs of nervousness like the dictionary definition implies. Just as the dictionary definition of anxiety is not comprehensive, neither is the dictionary definition of racism. Yet people keep using it to "prove" that something or someone isn't racist.

Fox News analyst Brit Hume just pulled that trick on Twitter to try to back up his claim that Donald Trump's "go back to" statements to four Congresswomen of color weren't technically racist.


The first Merriam-Webster entry for "racism" reads "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race."

Merriam-Webster

First of all, I'm not sure how this definition actually makes Trump's statements not racist. A belief is not always conscious, so even assuming that his racism is unconscious, a white man telling four women of color to "go back to" their countries of origin—despite three of them being born in the U.S. and the fourth being a naturalized citizen of the U.S.—is pretty objectively racist. No one knows exactly what is going on in the President's head, but such statements only being made to women of color would certainly be consistent with the behavior of someone with a belief in white people's inherent superiority.

But that simple definition isn't truly definitive, either. Shortly after Hume's tweet, Merriam-Webster pointed out a usage note for the word "racism," which clarifies that dictionaries do not provide the be-all-end-all definition of words.

Anti-racism advocates have tried time and time again to explain that racism is not as straightforward as someone saying, "I think I'm superior to people who don't share my skin color." Racism is almost never that blatant, and yet oodles of Americans refuse to call anything less than that kind of bold statement "racism." We have a long history showing exactly how white supremacy—the origin of racism in the U.S.—exerts itself in both strong and subtle ways, and thousands of hours and pages of education from experts describing how racism works on an individual and societal level. But people still insist on the simplistic narrative of "Racism=hating people of a different race."

I've seen many people, including Brit Hume, argue that the word racism has lost all meaning. Frankly, that's a copout. Racism—as both a conscious or unconscious belief of racial superiority and as a system of racial prejudice blended with power dynamics—has a broader meaning than one person hating another person for the color of their skin. But that doesn't make it meaningless.

I've also seen people complain that "everything is racist these days," but no, it's really not. We simply understand more about racism now, thanks to the field of race studies and to people of color offering their time and energy to explain it, so it's easier to identify in its various forms. In my experience, when someone's understanding of racism reaches a certain stage, they start recognizing it in places where ignorance or unconscious bias may have caused them to miss it in the past. That's not imagining racism where it doesn't exist or "calling everything racist these days"; that's simply seeing reality more clearly.

When you really dive deep into the historical, psychological, and sociological reality of racism in America, it becomes painfully obvious that racism is far more prevalent and enmeshed in our society than most people think. Until defensive, mostly-white folks stop automatically denying racism every time the word is used and stop throwing around dictionaries to avoid having to do that deep dive work, we're not going to make real headway on this issue.

Let's stop pretending that the definition and supposed overuse of the word "racism" is the problem, when the problem is racism, period.

Democracy
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