Throughout the history of the NFL, countless players have used their platform on the national sports stage to take stands for the causes they believe in, whether activism or advocacy. From the controversial to the charitable, here are some of the most notable names who’ve used their athletic stature to shine a light on something greater off the field.
By now we all know the tale of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers star who turned the country on its head on due to his simple, yet powerful, act of refusing to stand for the National Anthem. As a result, Kaepernick has turned into one of the most polarizing figures in the history of the league with a multitude of opinion pieces and shouted debates arguing that he’s either disrespectful and unpatriotic or extremely brave in support of a just cause (depending on what side you’re on, that is). As the 2017 season dawns and Kaepernick is left without a team of his own, don’t expect the 29-year-old to quiet down anytime soon.
Since the current Giants wide receiver first announced that he suffers from borderline personality disorder (a multifaceted condition that manifests itself in mood swings and depression, among other emotional issues), Marshall has become a crusader for mental health and its perception in both the NFL and the culture at large. As a result, Marshall founded a nonprofit dubbed Project 375 devoted to the cause and has been busy promoting mental health awareness, whether getting fined for wearing green cleats on the field in honor of Mental Health Awareness Week or doing his part to enlighten NFL owners. In a recent interview, Marshall went so far as to say that the cause “is the civil rights movement of our era.”
A former punter for the Minnesota Vikings, Kluwe found himself in the middle of a media firestorm as the debate over same-sex marriage raged in 2013. A staunch supporter of equality, the athlete penned a letter admonishing Maryland delegate Emmett C. Burns Jr. for his chastising of Baltimore Ravens linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo, himself an outspoken advocate for LGBT rights. As he told Out magazine in a cover story: “I think as more and more generations start rising through the NFL, a lot of these kids see that it’s OK to be something other than an athlete.” Eventually the Vikings gave Kluwe the boot, a decision he outlined in a scathing letter published on Deadspin titled “I Was An NFL Player Until I Was Fired By Two Cowards And A Bigot.” A lawsuit concerning the matter was later settled, with the entire brouhaha cementing Kluwe as one of the sport’s most notable crusaders for gay rights.
Not only is Brown considered one of the league’s best running backs of all time, but the legendary Cleveland Browns player has made social issues a cornerstone of his career. From founding the Black Economic Union in the 1960s (its mission, to foster the growth of black-owned businesses) to Amer-I-Can in the Eighties (which mentors youth in both inner cities and prisons), Brown was one of the NFL’s earliest activists. Brown’s eventful life, which also includes a stint as an actor, led Spike Lee to direct a documentary focused on his legend in 2002.
The former Colts standout has made children’s advocacy just as big a part of his career as his play on the field. Most notably, Manning and his wife Ashley founded the eponymous Peyback Foundation which, according to its mission statement, “promotes the future success of disadvantaged youth by assisting programs that provide leadership and growth opportunities for children at risk.” Since its inception in 1999, the foundation has raised a cool $13 million. In honor of his commitment to children, Manning has a Indianapolis Children’s Hospital named after him and in 2014 was given a Samuel S. Beard Award for public service.
Besides having the impressive distinction of never missing a game throughout the entirety of his 15-year career, the former Ram – who helped St. Louis score a Super Bowl ring in 2000 – is also behind the non-profit London’s Bridge. Focusing on fostering underprivileged and underrepresented children, Fletcher’s organization provides mentorship to at-risk youth. His efforts off the field inspired his former Washington Redskins to launch a Community Service Award, which he was bequeathed in 2011.
While Colin Kaepernick is usually the activist who captures the headlines these days, Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett has also been on the front lines of the equality movement in the league – even sharing a recent encounter in which he was allegedly singled out by Las Vegas police. Not only does Bennett kneel for the National Anthem, but the outspoken player also put his money where is mouth is by donating all of is 2017 endorsement cash to charity. “Especially with the presidential race and police shootings and stuff like that, people are paying so much attention now that they are getting an opportunity to really speak,” said Bennett. “And I think [players] have to use our platform for the right reason.”
While Davis may not be a household name, the former Oakland Raiders owner (who died in 2011) made a monumental impact on race relations in professional football. Dating back to 1963 when he opted out of the Raiders playing a game in Alabama in protest of segregation, and in later years when he garnered the distinctions of hiring the first African-American female front office exec and first African-American head coach in NFL history.
While nowhere near as well known as his baseball counterpart Jackie Robinson, Washington was the first black professional football player, joining the Los Angeles Rams in 1946. A leading rusher at the time, Washington paved the way for African-Americans in the league during his two years with the team. Oddly enough, the legendary player later became a staunch supporter of Richard Nixon, campaigning for the future president’s senate campaign in 1950.
When it comes to marijuana, there’s no bigger advocate in football than two-time All-American and Heisman Trophy winner Williams. Following stints with the Saints and Dolphins in the early 2000s (with failed drug tests throughout), the San Diego native has become one of pot’s biggest supporters in football. A partner in the burgeoning tech company Weedmaps (an app that locates the nearest dispensaries), Williams is spending his post-NFL career entrenched in the marijuana industry, regularly promoting it as a form of alternative medicine. According to Williams, weed enables “the part of us that connects with something bigger… You become not so attached to your own stuff. If you integrate that [approach], then addictions – alcoholism, food, porn; all these behaviors that plague society – we’ll start to change them. Those things are a side effect of a lack of integration. That’s how I use cannabis.”