In a divided US, NFL stars put their money where their mouths are
In an era marked by divided opinions in the US, a crop of NFL players is quietly trying to bridge the cultural divide with messages of inclusion and charitable work.
The likes of the Philadelphia Eagles Chris Long and Los Angeles Chargers Russell Okung are socially active, financially savvy, and committed to charitable causes.
Two-time Super Bowl winner Long — the son of NFL Hall of Famer Howie Long — found it unthinkable to visit US President Donald Trump’s White House after both championships, and was the first non-black player to publicly show solidarity with protesting teammates.
During the height of the national anthem controversy last season, Long embraced teammate Malcom Jenkins who raised a fist in protest of social injustice — a gesture that took on more weight after Trump’s call on owners to fire protesting players.
“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now,” Trump said at a rally in Alabama in September 2017.
Behind the scenes, former New England Patriot Long was tirelessly working for his charity, which he says has built 50 solar-powered wells in Africa, delivering water to 150,000 people.
“(We are) trying to change America the most efficient way we can,” Long told CNN Sport after an Eagles win in London last month, “which is educating our youth and giving underserved communities the same opportunities as kids who grew up like me.”
The 33-year-old defensive end climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in February to raise money with retired NFL players and military personnel. Along with his African initiative, the Chris Long Foundation benefits military veterans and homelessness.
Long was an overall No. 2 pick in the 2008 NFL draft from the University of Virginia, which is based in Charlottesville, the scene of the ugly “Unite the Right” rally last year that left one counter-protester dead.
The violence in his hometown only made Long more determined to use his status as an NFL player to make a change. And he’s putting his money where his mouth is.
In 2017, he donated his entire salary — more than $1 million — to fund educational scholarships and literacy campaigns. This season he has given up a quarter of his salary while inviting other NFL players to join his causes.
In an odd way, the attention garnered from the national anthem protest allowed Long to publicly raise awareness of his charity,
“All of a sudden, everyone cares about my protest, but they never cared about my actions,” Long told NFL.com. “If guys were just like, ‘Hey, I’m over here! I want to talk about social issues,’ the reporters would be like, ‘We don’t care.'”
‘You matter, where you’re from matters’
In the two years he spent writing his book, “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” author Mark Leibovich interviewed dozens of league insiders — including Tom Brady and Robert Kraft, who have blown hot and cold on Trump — and says the president’s words contributed to a backlash.
“After Trump made it so personal back then,” Leibovish says, players became “definitely more aware,” even though most were not political to start with. “They can’t let that go,” he says.
Leibovich calls Trump’s profanity-laced comment “a direct shot across the bow” of NFL players, 70 percent of whom are black, and applauds the efforts of Chargers offensive lineman Russell Okung to unify players in its wake.
“He’s very, very politically aware, aggressive, and does stand out among players who are willing to say that (about owners),” he says, “and I totally applaud him for that.”
Like Long, Okung was a star player out of college, picked No. 6 in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks.
In his first few seasons, Okung leveraged the proximity of Seattle’s tech community to co-found The Greater Foundation, which provides technology and investment training to lower-income youth.
“No matter your background, no matter your ethnicity, you deserve a chance to fully participate in the future of our economy,” Okung tells CNN.
“We’re preaching the gospel that you matter, where you’re from matters, and if you want to solve problems from places in which you come from, you can do it.”
‘The system wasn’t built for players to be empowered’
That mantra also applies to 6-foot 5-inch, 310-pound Okung, a venture capitalist who has invested in eSports start-up Matcherino, among other companies.
The offensive lineman of Nigerian heritage has represented himself twice in free agency negotiations, is working towards his MBA, and is interested in attending law school at Oxford University after his NFL days.
“Obviously, the system wasn’t built for players to be empowered,” says Okung,
Okung, who also raised a fist in protest during the playing of the anthem last season, was voted in as a vice president on the NFL Players Association executive committee.
That post seated him at the anthem protest negotiation between NFL players and owners in November, 2017. Prior to attending the well-publicized meeting, Okung urged other NFL players to reach out to him directly.
“The system is designed to keep us divided and to stifle our attempts to collaborate — we’re made to see each other as the enemy,” he wrote in The Players Tribune. “Indeed, the system celebrates when it puts us at odds with one another.”
NFL teams agreed to donate a minimum of $89 million to criminal justice reform and other causes over seven years, though a number of players — including Carolina Panthers defender Eric Reid, who Okung lauds for “remaining steadfast in what he believes in” — were displeased with the deal.
“I think we can build a better future together,” says Okung. “As soon as ownership decides that they will take the players’ representatives and the players seriously in this business, there is nothing we can’t do.”
‘The future belongs to those who are contrarian’
Players donating to charitable causes is not new to the NFL, though they normally avoid political discussion.
Among the dozens of NFL players active in community work are the Houston Texans J.J. Watt, who famously raised $30 million for Hurricane Harvey relief last year, and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose foundation has raised $25 million to global causes.
Both players mostly stayed away from the anthem controversy last season, unlike Andrew Whitworth of the Los Angeles Rams, an outspoken advocate for players’ rights who called Trump’s words “immature and unnecessary.”
The four-time Pro Bowler recently gave up a week’s salary for victims of the mass shooting in Thousand Oaks, California, and raised money for those misplaced by the state’s wildfires.
“Athletes are not as one-dimensional as our society wants them to be,” says Leibovich, who spoke to Long, Okung and Whitworth for his book. “They are well-rounded individuals, this has been true for a long time now.”
Okung, meanwhile, is pursuing his University of Miami MBA during offseasons, and is intent on getting his law degree after hanging up his jersey.
“I think that the future belongs to those who are contrarian and nonconformist,” says Okung. “Honestly, I don’t feel like I am stifled, I can do anything that I put my mind to.”
“I’m one of those people who is just that crazy; if I want it hard enough, I put my head down and work for it.”