The NFL and Social Justice: Team-by-Team Efforts

Jenny Vrentas
Sports Illustrated
The NFL and Social Justice: Team-by-Team Efforts
The NFL and Social Justice: Team-by-Team Efforts

A common refrain since NFL players began peacefully demonstrating during the national anthem has been, Well, what are players and teams actually doing to address issues of social justice? Here’s a snapshot of some of the social justice work each team has undertaken within the past year.

Atlanta: The Falcons created a social justice action plan and committee, which includes eight players. Earlier this year team owner Arthur Blank, players and coaches participated in a series of events including police ride-alongs, teen mentoring, home builds and meetings with advocacy programs, such as the Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal representation to people who may have been wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced. The team awarded grants to the Atlanta Police Foundation, Boys & Girls Club of Metro Atlanta and Atlanta Habitat for Humanity through the Blank Family Foundation and funding from the NFL’s Social Justice Club Grant program. Blank also contributed $250,000 to implement the EJI’s Race & Poverty Project in Georgia and Alabama over the next two years.

Arizona: Team president Michael Bidwill and players Tre Boston , Antoine BetheaandCorey Peters met with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey in September to discuss criminal justice reform and efforts to reduce the state’s recidivism rate. Members of the team later attended an October job fair at the Lewis State Prison Complex’s Eagle Point Second Chance Center, where they talked with current inmates, ex-offenders and employers about re-entry training and education. Peters, a defensive tackle, told the Arizona Republic that Bidwill promised players he would broker meetings with lawmakers and community leaders if they stood for the anthem last season after President Donald Trump’s comments labeling players who kneel “sons of bitches.”

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Baltimore: The Ravens began a five-year partnership this year with Up2Us Sports, a national non-profit that trains young adults to mentor and coach kids in low-income areas; their $1.5 million contribution will help expand the program in Baltimore. The team also launched its “Flock Above” mentorship program, in partnership with the Baltimore-based Living Classrooms Foundation, selecting 10 male ninth-graders from Baltimore City High Schools for monthly enrichment meetings and regular interactions with Ravens players, coaches and staff for the duration of the school year.

Buffalo: More than 20 players participated in a Community Outreach Tuesday earlier this season, visiting the Boys & Girls Club of Buffalo; the Police Athletic League; and two community organizations offering educational or social services to underserved neighborhoods, the Belle Center and the Lt. Col. Matt Urban Human Services Center. The Bills also support the Buffalo Peacemakers, a violence and gang intervention program that works with youth and young adults, awarding them a social justice grant through the NFL Foundation earlier this year.

Carolina: Julius Peppers, Torrey Smith and Chris Manhertz, the three Panthers players on the team’s Social Justice Committee, promoted voter registration and early voting before the November mid-term elections through PSAs and local appearances. Smith and team owner David Tepper met with Mecklenberg DA Spencer Merriweather to discuss bail reform; Smith and Panthers staff members also participated in an event organized by the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department to discuss police and community relations. The Panthers’ Social Justice Committee is currently developing plans to help improve literacy in area public schools.

Chicago: The Bears were the first team to announce that they had maxed out the player/team matching program under the NFL’s social justice platform. More than 40 players donated funds that were matched by the Bears, Bears Care and the NFL Foundation, totaling more than $800,000. The Bears selected five local organizations to receive grants: By The Hand Club For Kids, an after-school program for kids at risk of dropping out; Kicks 4 the City, which provides shoes to the homeless; My Block, My Hood, My City, which exposes teens from low-income areas to opportunities beyond those that exist in their neighborhood; SAGA, a non-profit that works with public schools to provide individualized tutoring to underserved students; and the YWCA Lake County.

Cincinnati: The Bengals will announce in December four local organizations they’ll be working with to address issues including poverty, education and police relations; a committee of players, ownership and staff worked together on the plan.

Cleveland: The Browns organized a series of Neighborhood Equality & Unity summits, with players, local high school students and law enforcement officials, as well as a Social Justice Summit in April, in which players heard from local officials about ways to contribute in the Cleveland area. Players have started working with Towards Employment, a re-entry program; team owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam have partnered with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to cut down on chronic abstenteeism with measures including recorded phone calls from Browns players reminding kids to get to school. Earlier this year, the Browns submitted written testimony for the passage of Ohio Senate Bill 66, criminal justice reform legislation that modifies sentencing for non-violent offenders and offers more options for treatment and rehabilitation.

Dallas: The Cowboys and the Salvation Army created a class at the Gene and Jerry Jones Family Youth Education Town that will teach homeless teens and young adults financial literacy and life skills. Safety Kavon Frazier hosts a weekly #FrazierFriday mentoring program, bringing middle-school football teams from Frisco ISD to the team facility for a tour and Q&A session. The Cowboys are currently working on a team-wide initiative that they plan to announce later this season.

Denver: The Broncos and linebacker Brandon Marshall committed $50,000 to launch his FEEL (Feed & Educate to Empower Leaders) Movement, helping meet basic needs of low-income families by distributing FEEL boxes that are stocked with coupons for non-perishable food, hygiene products and a tablet loaded with books and educational materials. The funding, which came through the player/team matching program, also supported the Denver Rescue Mission, which helps people experiencing homelessness and addiction; Adolescents Know Your Rights; and Action Youth, a nonprofit that works to develop urban student leaders who influence the community. The team is also finalizing what will be a six-figure law enforcement-community relations program led by Von Miller.

Detroit: Nevin Lawson and Theo Riddick hosted a life-skills discussion and football camp for 100 teens from the Detroit Police Athletic League this summer; players have also participated in ride-alongs and discussions with Detroit police officers, Michigan state troopers and high school students from Detroit Public Schools. A team spokesperson said players, team owner Martha Firestone Ford and head coach Matt Patricia are “continuing these discussions internally right now” about ideas for team social justice initiatives in Detroit.

Green Bay: Aaron Rodgers, Randall Cobb, Lance Kendricks, Mason Crosby and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix selected five Wisconsin organizations to each receive a $50,000 grant to be used for programming addressing inequality and barriers to opportunity in the community. The grants were awarded to Legal Action of Wisconsin; CASA Brown County; Sherman Phoenix; and Ha Ha’s HERO Foundation, the non-profit started by the former Packers safety to provide resources and encouragement to students from low-income areas.

Houston: The Texans have ongoing initiatives with the Houston Police Department, including player ride-alongs, hospital visits with police officers, homeless outreach and donating giveaway items for officers to use for positive interactions with local kids. They support the Police Athletic League through Play60 programming and funding, and hosted P.A.L. officers and kids from the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Houston at a preseason game.

Indianapolis: The Colts announced their “Breaking Barriers” social-justice campaign in August. They have partnered with local police officers to host a youth football camp during training camp; donated bicycles used during camp to kids in the OK Program, a mentoring program for African-American young men aged 12 to 18; and worked with the Indianapolis-based Peace Learning Center and local police to train teens in problem-solving and conflict resolution. Money from the Players’ Action Fund, created last season, was donated to the Marion County Juvenile Detention Center; the team also created a Social Justice Club Fund, for the leaguewide player/team matching program.

Jacksonville: Calais Campbell hosted a community conversation with students from Raines High School in northwest Jacksonville, the site of a deadly triple shooting after a football game in August, about preventing violence in their community and registering to vote when they turn 18. In October, linebackers Myles Jack and Telvin Smith spoke to students at Andrew Jackson High about overcoming difficult circumstances and finding friends who support their personal goals.

Kansas City: The Chiefs started the “4th Quarter Program,” in which they address one of four social justice issues voted on by the players in each month of the season. In September, for the education focus, players and team president Mark Donovan visited a local middle school in conjunction with the City Year program, which places AmeriCorps members in urban schools with low marks in attendance, behavior and performance. The Chiefs Ambassadors, a group of former Chiefs players, also donated $25,000 to Big Brothers Big Sisters of Greater Kansas City, which was matched by the Hunt Family Foundation; the $50,000 will be used to fund 25 Big/Little matches for a year in the program.

Los Angeles Chargers: In June, the Chargers and the Spanos family pledged $1.2 million over three years to Los Angeles’ Summer Night Lights program, part of the city’s efforts to reduce gang violence by keeping parks and recreation centers open and adding extended programming between 7 and 11 p.m. during the summer. The Chargers also committed $400,000 over the next two years to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro LA, to refurbish sports fields and teen centers, and add educational programming at two different facilities.

Los Angeles Rams: The Rams worked with the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), founded by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, on the “RISE with the Rams” season-long initiative to build relationships between two Los Angeles area high school football teams with different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. They also have an ongoing relationship with the Watts Bears, a sports program created and led by LAPD officers to serve kids in the high-crime neighborhood of South Los Angeles; Rams players have joined their practices and presented the football team with new cleats. The team is forming a player-led social justice committee to help direct the team’s future efforts.

Miami: The Dolphins’ Football Unites program was designed to address social justice across race, gender, sexual orientation and identity. The program includes a long-term partnership with 5000 Role Models, a mentoring program initiated by the Miami-Dade County School Board to provide opportunities for at-risk boys. It also includes the Captains Program, which brings together 80 to 100 middle-school students from different backgrounds once a month to promote tolerance and inclusion; the yearly Project Change scholarship covering four-year college tuition for a student who is committed to leading social progress initiatives in their community; cultural tours and police ride-alongs; community tailgates funded by Dolphins players; and a yearly grant program. Among this year’s 11 grant recipients were the Trayvon Martin Foundation; the Community Justice Project, Inc., a non-profit law firm; and two organizations supporting the LGBTQ community.

Minnesota: The Vikings began a player-driven initiative this month to visit at-risk schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul to lead discussions about race and inequality, facilitated by the Minnesota-based Project Success organization. A black player and a white player will team up for each visit and talk to students about how the Vikings’ locker-room culture of understanding and respecting teammates of different races and backgrounds can be applied to their school. Vikings players have also visited local first-responders, gone on ride-alongs with Minneapolis police and visited the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center in downtown Minneapolis.

New England: The Patriots Foundation worked with the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless to provide 200 new beds to children in need; team owner Robert Kraft hosted a leadership summit at Gillette Stadium for high school and middle school students participating in the Patriots Anti-Violence Partnership; in January, the Kraft Center for Community Health launched a mobile health van to provide critical care for people without health care. Earlier this year, Devin McCourty co-authored an op-ed in the Boston Globe along with Robert and Jonathan Kraft, advocating for juvenile justice reform in Massachusetts. Several reform measures, including raising the age at which children can be charged in juvenile court from 7 to 12, were signed into law in April.

New Orleans: A Saints spokesperson cited work done by Demario Davis and Ben Watson through the Players Coalition. The two players advocated for the passage of a bill in Louisiana that would return voting rights to people with past felony convictions who are on probation and parole; in August they hosted a “Listen & Learn” tour focused on New Orleans’ criminal justice system, also attended by Cam Jordan, Saints owner Gayle Benson and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. Benson joined Davis in New York last month, when he was presented with an award for his social justice work by the Bronx Defenders.

New York Giants: The Giants have worked with the Vera Institute for Justice, which set up a June visit with the Camden County Police Department. A small group of players participated in a training simulator and walked the beat with officers. In August, the Giants hosted and provided services to about 75 Newark men and women experiencing homelessness through Project Kind, an organization tight end Rhett Ellison worked with to fund a year’s living expenses for a man who is experiencing homelessness while also battling cancer. Earlier in the year, Michael Thomas, Olivier Vernon and Dalvin Tomlinson hosted an educational summit for Newark High School athletes along with the Newark Bronze Shields, the African-American police officers association within the Newark Police Department.

New York Jets: CEO Christopher Johnson joined Josh McCown, Kelvin Beachum and Demario Davis, a former Jet, in their criminal justice reform efforts through the Players Coalition this offseason, including lobbying the New York state legislature for pretrial reform. The Jets support the NYC Police Athletic League and NYC Parks and Rec flag football teams, donating $60,000 to these programs and hosting a tournament at their facility. In December they’ll host a holiday shopping spree for NYPD officers from Brooklyn’s 75th Precinct and 25 students from the Brooklyn Community Services’ Generation Jets Academy, an educational initiative for elementary school kids.

Oakland: In June, Jalen Richard and Lee Smith hosted a Q&A at the team facility with 20 teens from Youth Alive, a program that mentors and offers support services to young adults from neighborhoods with high rates of violence. The Raiders contributed $250,000 to save Oakland youth sports programs that were eliminated under budget cuts by the Oakland Unified School District and have also supported efforts in the Las Vegas area in advance of their move, including the refurbishing of a Boys & Girls Club.

Philadelphia: The Eagles distributed $190,000 last week in a first wave of grants from their Social Justice Fund, created through matching donations from players and the club. The recipients: Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, Philadelphia Opportunities Industrialization Center, Police Athletic League of Philadelphia and the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey. A leadership council that includes six players chooses how to direct the funds; the team has raised nearly $500,000 so far. This is separate from the work of Eagles players who are part of the Players Coalition, including co-founder Malcolm Jenkins, whose efforts this year include meeting with DAs and public defenders about criminal justice reform measures and advocating for what is now Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law, allowing people who have been convicted of non-violent crimes and haven’t re-offended to have their records sealed after 10 years.

Pittsburgh: Last week, a group of Steelers players presented the Boys & Girls Club of Western Pennsylvania with a $15,000 check, their first grant from the player/team matching program that’s part of the NFL’s social justice platform. They’ll continue to present donations in the coming weeks to other organizations. Center Maurkice Pouncey, who led fundraising efforts in the locker room along with Ramon Foster and Cam Heyward, donates 20 to 25 tickets for each home game to one zone of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police, to help police officers build relationships with kids from the neighborhood they serve by taking them to Steelers games.

San Francisco: The 49ers announced this week a joint $2.35 million grant with Google.org to the National Center for Youth Law, to support the Santa Clara Youth Justice Initiative, a campaign that aims to change outcomes for minors who come into contact with the law through diversion opportunities and rehabilitation programs. A group of five 49ers players, including cornerback Richard Sherman, determined how the organization would direct its social justice funds. Earlier this year, the team sponsored a 50th anniversary celebration of Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ demonstration at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City with a series of events and an athlete activism symposium at their alma mater, San Jose State.

Seattle: The Seahawks’ Players Equality and Justice for All Action Fund awarded its second round of grants in October to eight local organizations addressing homelessness, criminal justice, bail reform and education. The open fund was created by players last year to support organizations fighting injustice and inequality and is overseen by the Seattle Foundation, a community philanthropy partner that manages more than $1 billion in charitable funds. The team says the fund has so far raised more than $1.2 million dollars and donated $350,000 to 15 organizations.

Tampa Bay: The Buccaneers created a year-long social justice plan built around monthly community events, including participating in the Tampa Police Department’s Citizen Academy and a mentoring workshop at a juvenile detention facility. The team also created a $1 million fund that matches all players’ contributions to local organizations committed to social justice causes.

Tennessee: The Titans created a “We Stand For” campaign to support and promote community work of players, coaches and team employees. It includes a pledge to match the charitable contributions of players up to $250,000.

Washington: The Loads Of Love (LOL) program, the brainchild of long snapper Nick Sundberg and his wife, Flor, installs laundry facilities in schools, youth shelters and other non-profit organizations so that kids who might be homeless or in an unstable living situation don’t have to worry about having clean clothes to wear to school or extra-curricular activities. The team’s charitable foundation awarded more than $375,000 in grants to 42 schools and non-profits to open dLOL Laundry Centers to serve local children.

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