Colin Kaepernick and his wife Nessa diab in 2017. Debby Wong/shutterstock
Colin Kaepernick and his wife Nessa diab in 2017. Debby Wong/shutterstock

Back in the late summer of 2016, National Football Association quarterback Colin Kaepernick began his protest against racial injustice and police brutality by taking a knee. While it remains unclear if he’ll ever be back on the football field again in earnest, he’s stepped into his role as a leading activist, including via his Colin Kaepernick Foundation and Know Your Rights Camps, which work for the “liberation of Black and Brown people” through education, self-empowerment, mass-mobilization and the creation of new systems that elevate the next generation of change leaders.

In this Black Lives Matter era, Kaepernick’s message has drawn enormous support in many quarters—and fierce blowback in others—most importantly, among NFL team owners who have refused to hire him. The NBA in contrast, long known for its progressiveness, launched the NBA Foundation and pledged an initial $300 million over the next decade to spur economic growth in the Black community.

Still, the NFL has made moves to quell some of the criticism including through Inspire Change, an initiative that focuses on three priority areas: Education and economic advancement, police and community relations, and criminal justice reform. Since 2017, the initiative has awarded more than $44 million in grants to social justice organizations, including more than 750 grants awarded to current and former NFL players for nonprofits across the country.

Speaking of these players, we’ve covered how athletes across all major sports are increasingly using their platforms to speak up about issues they’re passionate about. Some have already launched nonprofit foundations. Per the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, starting in 2021, the players will get at least 48% of all league revenue. In 2018, the NFL made roughly $16 billion in revenue.

With the bulk of their attention focused on their playing careers, these figures have plenty of time to iron out and deepen their giving interests later. In other words, the giving we’re seeing now from NFL athletes could pale in comparison to the philanthropy that might happen when these players put down pads and the pigskin and have more time for other interests.

That said, here’s a rundown of some of the current NFL’s top philanthropic players:

1. J.J. Watt

Born in Wisconsin, Houston Texans defensive maestro J.J. Watt launched the JJ Watt Foundation, which serves schools in Wisconsin, Texas and beyond to help fund after-school athletic programs. Watt stepped up after Hurricane Harvey and helped raise some $41.6 million for relief efforts. In 2020 alone, the foundation has served over 100 schools in states including Oklahoma, Vermont, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania. J.J. Watt also stepped up to pay for the funerals of victims of the 2018 Santa Fe School Shooting.

2. Richard Sherman

Outspoken 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman went from Compton, California to Stanford University and was drafted by the Seahawks in the fifth round of the 2011 NFL Draft. He recently said that “Racism hasn’t gone anywhere in this country so I think as athletes and as people who’ve dealt with it, it’s our job to continue the conversation.” His Blanket Coverage, The Richard Sherman Family Foundation, equips students from low-income communities with the necessary tools for success. By the end of the year, the foundation aims to give 5,000 backpacks to underserved students.

3. Ndamukong Suh

Once a star track and field athlete as well, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers player donated $2.6 million to his alma mater, the University of Nebraska, bankrolling an engineering scholarship. Suh graduated from the College of Engineering with a construction management degree. Meanwhile, the Ndamukong Suh Family Foundation (NSFF) seeks to advance education, health and wellness, and international outreach within the community. NSFF hosted a training camp for youth from Overtown Youth Center (OYC), a youth development agency co-founded by Florida sports legend Alonzo Mourning.

4. Carson Wentz

The star quarterback steers the Carson Wentz AO1 Foundation, which uplifts communities and individuals around the world by “demonstrating God’s love for his people.” It works with organizations like The Outdoor Ministry, which “aims to serve children with physical challenges, life-threatening illnesses”; and The Haiti Sports Complex, which aims to impact 15,000 children annually.

5. Drew Brees

Drew and Brittany Brees recently committed $5 million to Louisiana for relief efforts to fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Their Brees Dream Foundation focuses on improving the quality of life for cancer patients, and provide care, education and opportunities for children and families in need. The foundation has directed some $35 million to organizations, according to its website.

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