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Inspire Change: How the NFL is Evolving on Social Justice

For the first time, the NFL is committing the final two weeks of the regular season to highlighting efforts to promote education, criminal justice reform, and community empowerment.

Just over 18 months ago, in the midst of social unrest after the murder of George Floyd, the NFL announced it was going to commit $250 million over the course of 10 years to combat systemic racism.

In an interview with Boardroom, NFL Senior VP of Social Responsibility Anna Isaacson said the league is already more than halfway to reaching that quarter-billion-dollar goal. Last year’s commitment wasn’t the first time the league has agreed to donate funds; in 2017, the NFL initially gave $89 million to the Players Coalition to fund social organizations after Colin Kaepernick and other players engaged in protest actions in support of social justice goals.

With the NFL committing Weeks 17 and 18 of the regular season to showcasing its “Inspire Change” initiative Boardroom will be diving into how the league decides where to spread the money, the stories of several organizations who have received funds, and the NFL’s bigger-picture plans moving forward.

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The $250 million is divided into three categories: league-issued social justice grants, team contributions, and NFL Foundation matching grants. So far:

  • The league-issued social justice grants amount to $30 million of the $180 million total. These grants are picked by a player, owner or social justice working group, 30 organizations have received these funds so far. 
  • The bulk of the money is from team contributions, including owners, team foundations, and special player-team matching fund initiatives. These efforts have amounted to approximately $122 million.
  • NFL Foundation matching grants have generated $8 million. These grants are awarded to current players, former players and teams. Over 1,400 NFL foundation matching grants have been awarded so far, with two-thirds going to current players. 
  • The NFL announced on Wednesday the amount given had reached $180 million, up from the previously announced $160 million in the fall. The announcement also saw four new grant partners who will receive funds for social justice causes as well.

The league has outlined four pillars of the inspire change platform to help guide its efforts:

  1. Education
  2. Criminal justice reform
  3. Police-community relations
  4. Economic advancement

“Every single aspect of our social justice work comes from conversations and discussions and learning from the work that NFL players have done,” said Isaacson. “We worked very closely with the Players Coalition to think about where the NFL with NFL players could make the most impact. People define social justice in different ways; sometimes they define it very broadly and sometimes they define it very narrowly. So we wanted to make sure we are clear with what we mean when we say social justice.”

With 72% of the $250 million commitment allocated in just the first year of what will be a decade-long program, the league expects to surpass the stated milestone well before the 10 years are up — and when that happens, the NFL has no plans to apply the brakes.

“I can’t see us hitting $250 million and then stopping,” said Isaacson. “I think $250 million is a point in time and we’ll surpass it and keep going because it’s about making change, and as we see that change come, it is going to encourage and incentivize us to want more change.”

For the organizations, being branded alongside the NFL is a tremendous opportunity. Collectively, the value of all 32 of the NFL’s franchises hit an astounding $112 billion, per Sportico’s latest valuation figures. On top of that, the league agreed to an 11-year, $110 billion broadcast and streaming deal with its media partners in March.

All of this breeds opportunity for exposure and impact for the social justice organizations the league has partnered with.

“We would hope for a legacy that shows that we are a committed organization that is not always free of challenge and mistakes, but can be reflective. We want to be able to look back and say we didn’t run from challenges, but that we stuck to our conviction and really made an impact.”

As one could imagine, there are many suitors for grants. The league does not simply cut check after check to any and all organizations that come calling — there are defined parameters for the program, most specifically covering at least one of the four pillars of the Inspire Change program.

Organizations that stand out tend to have either a national reach or a model in their local community that the league believes could be replicated on a national level. There is also a relationship-building process between the organizations and the NFL to ensure the most productive passion and commitment around the issues they are fighting to solve. 

Committing $250 million is one thing, but spreading the money around to hundreds of organizations is another. The league said an organization’s grant total is dependent upon what they apply for. For smaller organizations, the league is careful to not give too much before they have the capacity to handle it. On the other end of the spectrum, the NFL carefully tracks the impact of each dollar that ends up in the hands of larger, better-funded non-profits to keep the momentum going.

And once the league hands out a grant to an organization, there is not necessarily a guarantee that it will be re-upped the next year.

“There are certain moments in time where we say, ‘wow, we funded this amazing project and it was great, now we’re going to move on to something else,’” said Isaacson. “As we have moved along in our journey we’ve gotten more narrow in what we want to fund. Some of the organizations we funded very early on in our journey are doing amazing work but it is now a little bit outside the scope of what we are more focused on.” 

The journey that Isaacson is speaking of began in 2016 when Colin Kaepernick and others protested social injustice by kneeling during the national anthem on the sidelines before games. Kaepernick, Eric Reid and many more became verbal punching bags for fans, media personalities and public officials after the protest. Following the 2016-2017 season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract to become a free agent and has not played a game in the NFL since then. 

In October of 2017, Kaepernick and Reid filed a grievance alleging collusion by NFL team owners to freeze them out of the league. The next month, as the case was ongoing, the NFL pledged $89 million over the course of seven years to the Players Coalition, a non-profit founded by Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins. In January of 2018, the Inspire Change campaign was created.

Kaepernick and Reid eventually reached a settlement in their case in February of 2019 that reportedly paid them a sum below $10 million, per the Wall Street Journal. 

Fast-forwarding to Summer 2020, after players released a video calling the NFL to condemn racism, admit wrongdoing in hearing players’ concerns, and properly declare that Black Lives Matter, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did just that.

“We the National Football League condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black people. We the National Football League admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and peacefully protest. And we the National Football League believe Black lives matter,” he said.

Two months later, during an appearance on Emmanuel Acho’s YouTube show “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,” Goodell said, “I wish we had listened earlier, Kap, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to… It is not about the flag. The message here and what our players are doing are being mischaracterized. These are not people who are unpatriotic, they are not disloyal [and] they are not against our military. What they were trying to do is exercise their right to bring attention to something that needs to get fixed.”

With years having passed since Kaepernick has played an NFL game and with over 75 quarterbacks being drafted or signed to teams since his opting out, Kaepernick’s playing days may be over. The league, however, isn’t opposed to working with him. 

“We would welcome an opportunity to work with Colin. He’s doing tremendous work with his nonprofit and his camp. I think he will always have a seat at our table to join us in these efforts,” Isaacson said.

Commissioner Goodell also said in the conversation with Acho, “we had invited him in several times to have the conversation, to have the dialogue. I wish we had the benefit of that. We never did.”

Still, the league has made several strides to right its admitted wrongs of the past. The NFL has held its “My Cause My Cleats’” week every year since 2016, encouraging players to wear custom cleats paying homage to special causes. The cleats are then auctioned off, with the proceeds are donated to the player’s chosen charity.

The initiative has been popular — but there are players around the league who would prefer the option wear custom cleats all season long.

“We want to keep [My Cause My Cleats week] special. There’s something special rallying an entire NFL family around different causes at a specific time and using the entirety of our platform to raise up various causes and issues,” said Isaacson. “We’re trying to balance between raising issues up and bringing attention and not watering things down so that people tune out.”

Beyond My Cause My Cleats, the league placed the phrases “end racism” and “It Takes All Of Us” in its end zones in 2020. The phrases returned this season, and can even be seen in EA’s SportsMadden 22 video game. Players can wear six social justice messages on their helmets that read “end racism,” “stop hate,” “it takes all of us,” “Black Lives Matter,” “Inspire Change,” and “Say Their Stories.” 

During the Inspire Change showcase in Weeks 17 and 18, the league is also adding a new element to its “say their stories” initiative in which teams will be empowered to highlight their respective social justice campaigns.

“I can’t see us hitting $250 million and then stopping. I think $250 million is a point in time and we’ll surpass it and keep going because it’s about making change.”

In collaboration with New Era and the Players Coalition, the NFL is additionally offering an Inspire Change knit hat that can be worn on the sideline during Weeks 17 and 18 by players, coaches, and other team and league personnel to add additional visibility to the cause. The hats will be sold to the public as well, with all proceeds donated to Inspire Change grant recipients.

Now, with over $180 million of its 10-year, $250 million commitment already allocated, the league is focused on its next moves — and how they’ll create the most profound, lasting impact possible.

“We would hope for a legacy that shows that we are a committed organization that is not always free of challenge and mistakes, but one that can look and be reflective and say, ‘here’s how we look and move forward and here’s how we really put a stake in the ground to make positive change on the issues that we care about.’ We want to be able to look back and say we were committed toward the long term. That we didn’t run from challenges, but that we stuck to our conviction and really made an impact.”

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