Social Impact, January 2019

The NFL and Social Justice, a Review

The NFL and Social Justice, A ReviewOne year ago, The New Yorker positioned the not-so-distant past as present with their cover, In Creative Battle.  The illustration has Martin Luther King, Jr., kneeling, arms interlocked with Michael Bennett and Colin Kaepernick — two contemporary advocates for social reform who demonstrate(d) as agitators from within the National Football League.  The magazine image evokes vibrations of commitment and sacrifice that link a storied Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the Greensboro Lunch Counter Sit-ins, MLK’s Nobel Prize speech and so much more history of protest to persistent, current issues of racial tumult that the League has been challenged to address along with the larger body politic.   

Tensions relative to racialized strain saw flare-ups around on-the-field protest that dogged the NFL in the summer months leading up to the 2018-2019 season.  These were largely muted during regular season play, but Kaepernick’s still not landing a quarterback spot among the thirty-two pro clubs that comprise the League cycled as a continuous hum across media.  His repping for Nike in its 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign further suggested the NFL as culturally out-of-step; and the end-of-season firing of five of only seven Black head coaches in the NFL punctuated a shaky relationship — if not clumsily managed optics — between the league and Black folk.

Still, in parallel with these wrenching situations, there was significant social impact work being done through the National Football League.  Many players further assumed their bully pulpit to frame programming and to push agendas that had positive, sustained change for many of the marginalized communities of concern to those players who were and are compelled to speak out about a socialized “otherness” that confines said communities to a compromised democracy.

The NFL’s Social Justice Initiative explains that:

The NFL is committed to supporting efforts by players and clubs to improve our communities. The Social Justice Initiative, a joint endeavor of NFL players and team owners to address racial inequality and social injustice, represents the first joint venture of its kind among professional sports leagues and includes a significant financial commitment. 

We are keenly aware that social justice may mean different things to different people and organizations. The NFL's support, along with that of NFL players, is dedicated to social justice programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, with a specific focus on three key areas:

  • Education and Economic Advancement
  • Police and Community Relations
  • Criminal Justice Reform

A summative content analysis of community work reported by clubs across the League at the end of 2018 found that many of the projects termed ‘social justice’ read most easily as community service activities that touched on social justice themes.  Though this is certainly a type of social impact, change and accountability seemed most heavily attached to planning that involved works over time. 

Below is programming that shows strong work from players, several clubs and efforts through the NFL Social Justice Initiative.  Such work suggests a component of the National Football League that strives to be responsive to player and community concerns about issues that compromise a universally just American experience.


  • The National Football League Commissioner, Roger Goodell, drafted a letter to U.S. Senate leadership endorsing the First Step Act, a bill aimed at decreasing the size of America’s prison populations that was ultimately signed into law.
  • Ballot initiatives for which Players Coalition members advocated passed in the midterm election in Florida, Louisiana, and Michigan.
    • Florida Amendment 4 restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated Floridians, providing a second chance to people who have finished serving their sentence. This impacts over 1.5 million citizens with prior criminal convictions who were permanently excluded from voting.
    • With one of the country’s highest rates of wrongful conviction, Louisiana is one of two states that had non-unanimous jury verdicts allowing a conviction with a ten-of-twelve majority vote. Louisiana Amendment 2 now requires unanimous juries to protect the due process rights of those charged with crimes, likely decreasing the number of wrongful convictions in the state.
    • Michigan Proposal 2 — anti-gerrymandering legislation — allows voters, not politicians or lobbyists, to draw voter maps. The maps will be drawn together by Democrats, Republicans, and voters who have no party affiliation. The process will happen in public meetings and all resources used to draw the maps must be published publicly.
  • The Atlanta Falcons committed to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Founded by Bryan Stevenson, EJI is committed to ending mass incarceration and excessive punishment in the United States, to challenging racial and economic injustice, and to protecting basic human rights for the most vulnerable people in American society.  The Atlanta Falcons aim to implement the Equal Justice Initiative’s Race & Poverty Project in Georgia and Alabama over two years. Arthur Blank became the first professional sports franchise owner to support the EJI Initiative with a $250,000 grant. 
  • The Baltimore Ravens donated $25,000 to restore free after-school bus rides for Baltimore City students. The money allows students to ride anywhere for free on Maryland Transit Authority buses until 8 pm.
  • The Baltimore Ravens made a $250,000 contribution to the renovation of the Baltimore City Western District Police Station Renovation. The focus of the project allowed for a station rebuild that improved the working conditions for officers and created a more inviting atmosphere for the public. As part of their investment, the Ravens built a community collaboration room that will allow for citizen-police programming. 
  • The Ohio Legislature passed Senate Bill 66, legislation that allows judges sentencing those persons convicted of non-violent offenses to “community control” instead of prison. The Cleveland Browns supported this legislation with written testimony submitted by ownership.
  • Owner Jerry Jones and the Dallas Cowboys became the second NFL team to visit the National Museum of African American History.
  • The Denver Broncos “are a proud supporter[s]” of the National Gay Flag Football League and the 2018 Gay Bowl (hosted in Denver).
  • Green Bay Packers tight end Lance Kendricks visited and toured the Sherman Phoenix project site. Kendricks, a Milwaukee native, helped direct a $50,000 donation from the Packers’ community action initiative to the Sherman Phoenix project, programming that aims to foster change by transforming the eastern gateway to the Sherman Park neighborhood in Milwaukee into a safe, welcoming space that supports small businesses-of-color offering diverse foods, wellness services, and cultural activities.
  • The Los Angeles Chargers and Spanos family announced a $1.2 Million contribution over three years to the City of Los Angeles' Summer Night Lights program, which provides meaningful programming to 32 parks across the region in communities at risk for gang violence, keeping them open and adding extended programming between the hours of 7pm – 11pm during the summer months.
  • The Los Angeles Rams partnered with LA Promise Fund and their Intern Project to customize a Rams internship program for Inglewood Unified high school graduates. The Internship Program is designed to provide deserving Los Angeles public high school students the chance to work in dynamic career areas through paid summer internships. Although 80 percent of Los Angeles students live in poverty, research shows that success has less to do with race and class and more to do with access to equitable opportunities.
  • The first Project Change Scholarship was awarded by the Miami Dolphins. The Scholarship identifies one high school student each year and will pay for their tuition to college over a four-year period. The goal of the scholarship is to target students to impact their lives, so they can make a change in their community.
  • Each year, the Patriots Foundation purchases hundreds of Empowerment coats and delivers them to homeless shelter programs across New England. The coats are waterproof, double as a sleeping bag and can be carried over the shoulder. These coats are also created by people who were once homeless. 
  • New York Giants Landon Collins, Nate Solder, Michael Thomas, Eli Apple, Teddy Williams and Jessie Armstead made a three-day-trip to Puerto Rico to help deliver aid to the hardest to reach towns in Puerto Rico, and to see first-hand the efforts to serve the island after Hurricane Maria.
  • New York Giants Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison and Patrick Omameh joined the Vera Institute for Justice in visiting the Camden County Police Department to observe best practices in community policing. The group stopped in Trenton, NJ to participate in a virtual simulator that put the players through various ordeals, while Camden County officers taught them appropriate de-escalation strategies and responses. 
  • The Oakland Raiders donated $250,000 to save Oakland youth sports that were eliminated by the Oakland Unified School District due to budget constraints.
  • Chris Long donated final 10 game checks to fund education in Philadelphia, Boston and St. Louis, the three cities he's played for during his NFL career.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers staff and Heinz Field staff along with City of Pittsburgh Police officers participated in Procedural Justice Training, which focused on the way police officers interact with people, and how those interactions shape the public’s view of the police.
  • The Washington, DC Football Team contributed $100,000 to REAL School Gardens, a national nonprofit that builds learning gardens in elementary schools and then spends three years training teachers to use gardens to give students the engaging experiential learning they need to get engaged in learning. 
  • Several Eagles players are active members of the Players Coalition, an organization co-founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins that is committed to making an impact on social justice and racial equality. Eagles players active with the Coalition include Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, and Rodney McLeod.