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COMMENTARY: TIAA is using student-athletes to cover environmental injustices

The Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America (TIAA), sponsor of the Big Ten Tournament, contradict their company statements about environmental justice through their investments.  – Photo by Josh Meyers

As a senior at Rutgers, I have been motivated by the Rutgers men's and women's basketball teams to excel in the most challenging periods of my academics. Rutgers student-athletes define undergraduate success as they juggle academics with their increasingly strenuous athletic lives.

The women's team maintains resilience in adversity, celebrating its history through the "Knights of Honor." The men's team has redefined its track record with coach Steve Pikiell while maintaining academic success.

As Rutgers basketball teams enter the Big Ten Tournament, support from students, family, coaches and alumni becomes increasingly imperative. As a student, I support these teams because their endurance has helped me maintain my morale while studying at Rutgers. 

I had hoped the Big Ten Conference would celebrate these same traits, but its choice to have the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association (TIAA) as the tournament's 2024 sponsor proves it does not. At first glance, TIAA, a retirement fund founded for educators, might seem like an ideal sponsor for the Big Ten Tournament. But TIAA's investment history reveals a grim reality that dissolves its benevolent public persona.

TIAA is the U.S.'s largest not-for-profit retirement provider, including many faculty and staff at the University. Thasunda Brown Duckett, the company's CEO, is 1 of only 2 Black women CEOs in the Fortune 500. She has led TIAA as a company "whose mission is defined by financial inclusion and opportunity."

Duckett has campaigned to close gender and racial wealth gaps to help more workers retire. With Duckett's work, TIAA appears to be a company that protects retirement in the American workforce, which is a welcome security for our teachers.

But TIAA's investments do not reflect the CEO's mission. Although repeatedly declaring itself environmentally aware, TIAA's pension funds significantly contribute to the climate crisis.

With $1.4 trillion in assets, TIAA holds $78 billion in fossil fuel companies, including Chevron and ExxonMobil. Although the IPCC has urged the world to phase out coal as a top priority, TIAA is the world's fourth-largest holder of coal bonds and an active threat to biodiversity. 

Meanwhile, TIAA has targeted Indigenous communities in Brazil through deforestation and land-grabbing. Leaked documents show that TIAA purchased 7,000 hectares of land in the Brazilian Cerrado region — the world's most biodiverse savanna — and violently cleared people's homes and plants to install vast monocrops of soybeans. In Elaine, Arkansas, Black farmers suffer from the exposure of chemicals sprayed on TIAA-owned crops.

Simultaneously, TIAA invested teachers' retirement money in Enbridge, a Canadian company that threatens the Great Lakes, biodiverse wetlands and Indigenous communities through its 2023 pipeline plans. Despite TIAA's proclamation of inclusion and opportunity, its investments and actions aggravate not only the climate crisis but also environmental injustice for Black and Indigenous communities. 

As TIAA's Big Ten campaign celebrates college student-athletes, the company simultaneously preserves its fossil fuel investments, threatening the future of the people it represents. By connecting the company to beloved undergraduate sports teams, TIAA does not just get its name advertised, but it also exploits the good spirit associated with sports events.

The young, talented athletes who promote health, strength and resilience conceal TIAA's environmental injustice, which contributes to health problems among Black and Brown children — an excellent marketing tactic hidden behind the hard work of student-athletes and their coaches.

Nat Francesco senior at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences at Rutgers University.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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