Why Is the NFL Giving Millions to UNCF?

The organization has received a donation from the National Football League, which is trying to end a protest movement by many black players.

December 5, 2017
Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images
Colin Kaepernick (wearing No. 7) taking a knee in 2016.

The National Football League -- beleaguered by protests from players during the national anthem and boycotts from fans who have taken offense -- reached a financial agreement last week with a group of activist players organized as the Players Coalition. Per an agreement with the group, the league will donate $89 million over the course of seven years to causes committed to social change for African-Americans.

The United Negro College Fund -- a group founded in 1944 to help fund scholarships for students attending private institutions among the nation’s historically black colleges and universities and a recipient of some of the earmarked money -- is receiving a fourth of the donation, and some are criticizing the UNCF's involvement.

The agreement, reached last week, does not stipulate a quid pro quo demanding players stop kneeling or protesting during the national anthem, a movement started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. But some members of the Players Coalition, a group of 40 or so NFL players, have agreed to stop their protests as a result, while others have declared that the financial deal doesn’t address their actual grievances, but rather is intended to make the protest movement go away.

Peaceful in nature, the anthem protests have roiled NFL leadership and have become a part of American culture wars, with President Trump at one point calling to "change tax law!" to punish the league because of them. (The NFL gave up its tax-exempt status in 2015, though much of its revenue is still taxed anyway. The league and teams still benefit from various tax breaks, however.) Kaepernick started kneeling during the national anthem last year -- and others throughout the NFL and among college and high school football programs have joined the effort -- as a way to draw attention to police brutality against African-Americans. Critics have called it disrespectful to the flag and the military.

The UNCF is set to receive 25 percent of the NFL’s donation, and while those in favor of the NFL’s move say the money will go to a good cause, the deal’s detractors have characterized it as hush money to quell a black protest movement.

The UNCF declined to comment.

"This new program will supplement, and not replace, our other key social responsibility efforts, including Salute to Service, cancer awareness, domestic violence/sexual assault and youth programs,” Tod Leiweke, the NFL’s chief operating officer, told teams in a Friday memo.

Given the criticism by some of the players questioning the intentions behind the money, though, the UNCF’s acceptance of the funds is drawing parallels to when it accepted donations from Charles and David Koch's company and a Koch foundation in 2014.

Critics said the members of the organization “sold their souls to the devil” for accepting the funds from the conservative billionaires, who have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into conservative political causes -- including political groups that have pushed voter ID laws, which research has shown disproportionately disenfranchises minorities, even when they are legally entitled to vote -- over the years. There were also concerns about the Kochs’ influence in how the gift was used, since the agreement stipulated they would have two representatives on the five-person advisory board that doled out the scholarships.

But the reaction wasn’t all negative, with some praising the move. Indeed, the Koch brothers’ libertarian tendencies can sometimes overlap with progressive causes dedicated to racial justice, such as their recent $4.5 million grant to research drug policy reform at Ohio State University. (Research shows that current drug laws and policies stemming from the government’s “war on drugs” are enforced more often and more harshly on minorities than white people.)

Los Angeles Chargers tackle Russell Okung is among the players who took issue with the NFL’s donation.

“When you’re dealing with a certain group of people, this entity as a league -- you try to keep in mind, is this a reparation, or just $89 million?” Okung told the Los Angeles Times, arguing that the protesting players were calling for substantial changes to policy and society.

“Reparation extends beyond just dollars and cents, in real change in policy and lobbying. I think that should be more at the forefront of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” he said.

He’ll continue to raise his fist during the national anthem.

Malcolm Jenkins, of the Philadelphia Eagles, one of the key members of the Players Coalition’s negotiations with the NFL, has said he will no longer protest during the anthem. He and retired NFL receiver Anquan Boldin, another member of the coalition, posted a statement on Twitter pointing out that the agreement with the league doesn’t stipulate concessions from protesting players.

The dialogue between the Players Coalition and the league has “always been about the issues; strengthening the criminal justice system and fight for racial and social equality,” they said.

Marybeth Gasman, director of the University of Pennsylvania Center for Minority-Serving Institutions, who has studied white philanthropy's influence at black colleges, said she saw parallels between the Koch gift and the NFL donation, in that the NFL might be using it as a way to quell what the team owners view as distractions, brought on by larger societal issues.

“The protest, taking a knee, is about police brutality against African-Americans. That’s what they’re protesting,” said Gasman. “I don’t think [the donation] lets [the NFL] off the hook from caring about police brutality toward African-Americans … It can’t just be money to say, ‘OK, so we threw money at that problem, so go away.’”

In 2014, Gasman wrote an essay for Inside Higher Ed arguing that the UNCF should return the Kochs’ money. She didn’t think the UNCF should return the NFL’s money, but said that the organization should use the opportunity to demand more from the NFL than just donations.

“This is about making sure that people know that this police brutality is happening, and who better to do it than the NFL? You have all those people watching, why not educate people when they’re watching football about police brutality against African-Americans?” she said.


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