The month of December brings all the warm and fuzzy feelings that come along with the holidays. It also brings us to the homestretch of the NFL regular season — more specifically, Week 13 — when the league relaxes its strict uniform guidelines to lend way to the greater good. Starting back in 2016, the NFL and its players embarked on a new initiative called “My Cause, My Cleats.” The campaign allows players to bring awareness to charitable causes that are held near and dear to their hearts by way of customized cleats that are pre-approved by the league. In addition to increased exposure, players are permitted to auction off their game-worn cleats to fans with 100% of the proceeds going to their charity of choice. Now in its sixth year, more than 900 players took part in this year’s campaign.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released the following statement: “My Cause My Cleats allows players to shine a light on the causes they hold dear and the incredible work they do to help others year-round. “We are grateful and humbled by their commitment to make a difference and this program allows them to share their passions with the world.”
Players collaborated with brands like Nike, Under Armour, and adidas, as well as with artists to come up with the unique designs. The causes ranged from cancer to mental health to social injustice. According to the NFL website: “17% of players selected cancer research causes, 16% selected causes related to social justice, while 14% of players will raise awareness for additional disease prevention.” The league began promoting the campaign on Nov. 26 with a commercial highlighting the wide-ranging scope of charities.
On the heels of the “Summer of Reckoning,” 20.5% of players dedicated their cleats to the fight against social injustice with another 17% aimed at education and youth. Eight players and three coaches from the reigning Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers chose to highlight social justice organizations. Safety Mike Edwards, cornerbacks Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Ryan Smith; running back Ronald Jones II, guard Aaron Stinnie, linebacker Cam Gill; and defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh, Will Gholston and Benning Potoa’e all sported cleats bearing slogans such as “Empower,” “Educate,” and “End Racism.” RISE – among the specific organizations supported – is a “national nonprofit that educates and empowers the sports community to eliminate racial discrimination, champion social justice and improve race relations.” More than 50 Bucs players and staff participated this year and showcased almost 50 different charities. Davis supported Safe & Sound Hillsborough as his did the previous season. Having lost friends to gun violence, the fourth-year cornerback has been instrumental in his work with the local organization that aims to create and maintain healthy family and neighborhood units, and safe schools.
There are layers to systemic oppression and Minnesota Vikings receiver Justin Jefferson chose to focus on the economic gap that has plagued the Black community. Jefferson represented Northside Achievement Zone, an organization looking to close the achievement gap and end generational poverty in North Minneapolis.
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Jefferson’s teammate Anthony Barr, the Vikings’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee, represented his own foundation which goes by the name Raise the Barr. Although a nuclear family unit is what society has deemed as preferred, the reality is that the multigenerational gap in poverty and education within the Black community has posed the greatest threats to achieving such structure. It’s not like most single moms set out with the intention to raise their children alone, but it happens. In addition to daily sacrifices, many have no choice but to put their dreams and career aspirations to the side to focus on the task of parenthood. Raise the Barr aims to lessen said gap by offering “equitable access to post-secondary education” for single-parent students. Since its formation, 98% of RTB scholarship recipients have graduated or stayed in school. This is significant when you consider that, on a national level, 8% of single mother undergraduate students earn a degree within six years of enrolling while 9 out of 10 live at or below the poverty line.
Although philanthropy is showcased in Week 13, there are several players that have their own non-profit organizations that they support year-round off the field. Stars like Russell Wilson and Pat Mahomes are among players who decided to highlight their own projects. Wilson sported customized cleats to bring awareness to his newly opened Why Not You Academy. The Seattle Seahawks quarterback founded the tuition-free public school with his wife, Ciara. According to the academy’s website, the WYNA aims to equip its scholars with “the autonomy and skills they need to navigate complex systems, develop meaningful relationships, and build professional and social networks.”
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) December 2, 2021
Mahomes’ foundation, 15 and the Mahomes, focuses on the youth, as well. Dedicated to improving the lives of children through several channels, the group has two programs: 15 for 15, and Read and 15. The first program functions as the organization’s signature program and supports “15 youth charitable initiatives that focus on academics, science, the arts, classroom supplies, athletics, children with disabilities, after-school programs and more.” Read and 15 encourages children to read and offers the chance to win prizes through a 15-week program.
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) November 30, 2021
Some of Wilson’s Seattle teammates chose to remain focused on social justice initiatives. Running back DeeJay Dallas supported Justice for Black Girls for the second year in a row. According to its website, the group’s mission is “to expand global knowledge of how US-based systems of power respond to and perpetuate the abuse of Black girls in schools, in prisons and in protest.” Through its Justice Ambassadors Program, the organization provides opportunities for Black girls to partner with grassroots operations across the country. Additionally, the organization created a Freedom Fighters Fund, which was established in honor of 19-year old activist Oluwatoyin Salau who was killed in 2020. The fund provides monetary relief for Black girl activists who may request grants for housing, food, and other expenses. Its 4LittleGirls curriculum pays homage to the four lives lost in the 1963 bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.
DK Metcalf, a receiver for the Seahawks, raised awareness for prison reform – one of the most prolific layers to systemic oppression. The third-year receiver supported the Prison Fellowship, a non-profit that works to restore America’s criminal justice system. In addition to its advocacy, the group works with wardens to reform the conditions of their facilities, and also works to maintain and strengthen the bond between children and their incarcerated parents.
While the cool and colorful designs are a welcome deviation from the strict uniform guidelines in place for the other 17 weeks of the regular season, the higher purpose should always remain the focal point. The NFL has not had the greatest reputation when it comes to allowing its players agency to support the causes most important to them – (coughs) Colin Kaepernick (coughs) – but this is a step in the right direction. At first glance, the roughly 3 percent decline in players electing to highlight social injustice is disconcerting – until you look at the other areas that are being showcased i.e. mental health, educational equity, and community restoration. After all, there’s levels to systemic racism and no stone should be left unturned.