Ovie Mughelli: The NFL's Green MVP
It’s a long shot that the starting fullback for the Atlanta Falcons would care enough about the environment to spend much of his time teaching at-risk youth about its problems. But Ovie Mughelli, at 30 years old and 245 pounds, is the NFL's greenest star, aiming his eco-efforts at underprivileged kids. He hosts a free football camp to draw them in, and once he’s got their attention, puts on an environmental workshop to educate them about sustainable living.
He was studying to be a doctor before he was drafted. Now that he’s a professional athlete, he buys 40 seats per game for children who display “positive attitudes and passion to improve.” We talked to him to learn more about his commitment to young people and his passion for the environment.
Q: How do you get kids to care?
A: Inner-city kids aren't worried about the environment. They're more concerned with violence, drugs, or getting something to eat that night. They think going green is unattainable and expensive, so I tell them there are ways that actually save money, like using less water and turning off lights. I teach that they can start with practical lifestyle changes.
This message is clear for people from private schools and the suburbs, but for underprivileged kids, the message isn’t as prevalent. So I try to use football to bring kids toward me and at least give environmentalism a chance. That’s how I’m able to get to them, using the pedestal people place me on for good.
I also explain how environmental problems get to them. Kids aren’t going to change unless you tell them why it’s important for them. They’re a lot smarter than we give them credit for, and ignorance is a very dangerous thing. The ones who know about it least suffer most. The kids I work with live in an unhealthy environment and have some of the highest rates of asthma. These kids need to get on it and give themselves a future.
Q: What got you passionate about protecting the planet?
A: I was surprised myself—I’m not the stereotypical
environmentalist. But I had the chance to meet a superhero
environmentalist, Laura Turner Seydel [Ted Turner’s daughter], in 2007
at a charity event. I was just doing the event to show up, and she told me she was the chair of the Captain Planet Foundation. I’m a big kid at heart, and that was one
of my favorite cartoons—it was one of the only ones about the
environment. She was surprised when I knew the whole theme song. The
conversation turned into what’s going on on this earth. It really
opened my eyes to the struggle, the battle. She took me to the side and
explained it to me. She eats and sleeps and lives and dies by the
environment. It was a light-bulb moment for me.
Q: How did your upbringing inform your environmental efforts?
A: My parents are very, very strict. They came over [from Nigeria] with next to nothing, and they understood the value of education, the value of the dollar. I had no choice but to get good grades—it was more important than sports. And several people helped them get to where they are today, so they've always encouraged me to give back to humanity and to youth. They instilled in me the concept that you do what's best for your community, your world, your people, yourself. And doing what's positive for the environment is doing what's best for the world—that's a no-brainer.
Q: What do you do personally to live sustainably?
A: It's a daily process. I want to walk the walk. It's more than just going to the forest and picking up trash. It's about taking responsibility for everything around you, what you do, the lights you leave on. It's making conscious decisions every day to help and not to hurt.
Q: You’re often called an “eco-athlete.” What does that mean?
A: Laura started that. I’ll definitely take it. It’s someone who uses their athletic limelight to influence people to live a more environmentally conscious life.
A: Sports are a huge reason to throw parties, tailgates, cookouts. All those take a lot of paper and plastic. Sports fans drink a lot of alcohol, so I’d say before you get too intoxicated, make a plan to recycle and reuse so that all that doesn’t end up in some landfill. I’ve been to several parties like that and I see most people just throwing that stuff straight in the trash.
Q: Do you say something?
A: I do now. Now that I know how important it is.
Q: Do you eat local, organic, or vegetarian?
A: I tried the vegetarian thing for like a day. It didn’t work for me. But I do try to buy everything locally to reduce my carbon footprint. It blows my mind how much carbon is released into the air by getting food from across the ocean. You’re contributing to a problem unknowingly. I support products that are local—if we all do that, we can make a huge dent. I’m not asking people to do things beyond their means. But if it’s the same price, then why not? People won’t do that, though, if they don’t know about it, so it all goes back to the education.
I try to educate myself as much as I can—that’s why I gotta go organic. All those toxins, they add up, and they’re causing cancer, asthma, terrible diseases. From my milk to my fruit to my meat—everywhere I can go organic, I do. If you can afford to do it, it’s one of the best things you can do.
Q: Are your green-living habits are rubbing off on your teammates?
A: [Laughs] No. I did have [Falcons running back] Jason Snelling tell me that he learned a lot from my environmental workshops and that he’ll try to make those changes in his life where he can. Hopefully I can make more players aware. We do have recycling bins in the locker room now, and biodegradable spoons, forks, and plates at the games. We tape our ankles a lot—tape, tape, tape—and we’d been throwing all that away. Now we recycle it. It takes a while for some people, though. I notice that any of them who have kids are more susceptible to giving it a chance.
Q: Do you have children?
A: I have a little girl. She’s a year old. That’s another big reason I do what I do. I would hate for her to get older and ask, “Dad, why didn’t you care about my future? Why didn’t you do anything about the rainforests, about the air?” I don’t want to have that conversation with my daughter when she’s in her twenties.
Q: Which other NFL players would you say are considerably green?
A: I’m not aware of any. Some participate in events on Earth Day. I hope that more will get involved soon. I don’t care if people think it’s a fad. I’ll take the support. People might start doing it because everyone else is doing it, and that’s fine.
Q: What can other athletes do to be green?
A: Educate themselves. Then if someone asks them about it, they can give a better, more detailed answer.
Q: Do you think there’s a consumerist culture among pro athletes?
A: It’s not just athletes—anybody with a lot of wealth or resources consumes a lot of things. Stopping everything cold turkey probably won’t happen but given the option, people can take practical steps in their lives. Whether planting trees, educating people, starting recycling programs, or finding other ways to help will definitely offset our consumerist nature. We can also choose greener luxury. I have a deal with Audi. I’m driving a Q7 TDI clean-diesel model. That thing, it moves. It’s a very, very attractive car.
Q: Do you think Atlanta could do better in an environmental sense?
A: We can do a lot better. Atlanta has one of the worst asthma rates. The toxins in our air are the worst. There’s lots of traffic. We have to get the government to make stricter regulations, and to put people in a healthier position to live and to breathe.
Q: Do you feel that environmental issues are important to the African-American community?
A: We don’t take it seriously enough—it's not as big of an issue to us as it should be. We have more environmental issues to deal with than any of the other races. It depends on what neighborhood you go to, but many deal with poverty and violence, so it’s hard to convince them that the environment is important. But African-Americans also deal with the negative effects of the environment more. We have landfills in our neighborhoods. We have huge reasons that we should figure out how to address this issue. But people are making changes. There are now organic gardens in inner-city neighborhoods. Foundations like Greening Youth are giving kids ways to empower themselves and make money through environmental issues. People are definitely working toward the good and not taking it lying down. It’s a process, and it’s not going to happen overnight. But we’re heading in the right direction.
Q: Is it important for professional athletes to take up an issue?
A: We have a lot of power. I’m surprised that people get so enamored that they hang on my every word. I’m just a human being but they see me as so much more, so I want to use that for good, to change someone’s life, to open minds to something bigger.
Q: What would you like to do after retiring from football?
A: I’d like to get involved in the business of the environment. Start a recycling plant, maybe introduce a new product that people in the socioeconomic class that I come from can use. I’d love to find something cost-effective for them, maybe cheaper solar panels. I’d like to do more research into the environment.
--interview by Avital Binshtock