Nearly every member of my family has ties to Mississippi. During school breaks, we would load up the Aerostar and head out from Detroit, down I-75 south to our grandparents’ home in Cruger, a small town nestled somewhere between where Emmett Till’s body was found and where Medgar Evers was assassinated. As a child, I didn’t like staying too long because there was never anything to do. As an adult, I wish I would have treasured those days a lot more.
As one would imagine in a town with fewer than 500 people, good-paying jobs in Cruger are not plentiful. The current median household income is less than $25,000, leaving roughly 35% of the population living in poverty. There are a lot of towns like Cruger in Mississippi, our nation’s poorest state.
Crawford, where Hall of Famer Jerry Rice grew up, has a 26% poverty rate. Archie Manning’s birthplace of Drew has a poverty rate of more than 40%. Rams great Jackie Slater was born in the state capital of Jackson, where 180,000 residents recently went weeks without clean drinking water and where 1 in 4 live in poverty.
These are the communities in most need of financial assistance.
And these are the communities Brett Favre, a Mississippi native himself, was told he was taking money from — and he did not care.
At least $77 million in welfare funds was misspent in what officials believe is the largest public fraud in state history. Favre was sued by the state in May to recoup $1.1 million in welfare funds that he received, and recent court filings have exposed details of his involvement.
Text exchanges between Favre and officials, including then-Gov. Phil Bryant, show discussions about diverting at least $5 million to help build a volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi. That’s where Favre played football and his daughter was playing volleyball at the time. Mississippi Today reported messages as far back as 2017, one year after Favre was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Imagine that: He got the famed gold jacket, and that was one of the first things he used his burnished reputation to achieve.
We are familiar with the stories of legendary athletes giving back to the communities that they came from. But taking?
In the NFL, the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award was created specifically to celebrate players for their philanthropy and work in communities all around the country.
I have spoken with the most recent recipient, Andrew Whitworth of the Rams, a number of times over the years about the work of his family’s youth-oriented nonprofit, Big Whit 77 Foundation. I’ve witnessed the commitment to giving back in former recipients of the award like Warrick Dunn, whose foundation has helped more than 200 families purchase and furnish their first home.
“The more I learned, we wanted to get into the business of giving people the potential to break their cycle of poverty,” Dunn told CNN last year.
That’s why what the text messages among Favre, Bryant and others reveal is not just your run-of-the-mill NFL scandal.
It is the antithesis of the Walter Payton award which so many players aspire to win. An award, by the way, that is named after someone born in Columbia, Mississippi, which currently has a poverty rate of 35.5%.
There will be people — perhaps fans, maybe former players — who will try to characterize this shameful exploit as a mistake.
Just remember this: Two years after Favre made the, ahem, alleged mistake of pushing for welfare dollars to be used for a new volleyball arena, he reached back out to Bryant for an indoor football practice facility.
Once is a mistake.
He came back for seconds.
The Hall of Fame rules may make it impossible for the NFL to expel Favre, but as we witnessed with Colin Kaepernick, the league can certainly ostracize him. For if owners thought protests during the national anthem threatened the integrity of the NFL’s precious shield, then where does “sued for taking financial assistance from the poorest among us” fit in that picture?
Mississippi has been real good to the NFL, from “Sweetness” himself, Walter Payton, to the GOAT Jerry Rice to the Manning quarterback legacy and budding stars like the Rams’ Cam Akers.
Many of them have family roots like mine, which are similar to those of many Black people far from the South because of the Great Migration. This scandal is in Mississippi, but the story matters everywhere. The NFL is everywhere.
That’s what made Favre a household name.
He retired as the NFL’s all-time leading QB in yards, touchdowns and wins.
Apparently those feats helped him persuade powerful people to serve his ego instead of those most in need.
That is incredibly selfish, even for a quarterback whose first NFL completion was to himself.
“If you were to pay me, is there any way the media can find out where it came from and how much?” Favre reportedly asked Nancy New, the founder of the Mississippi Community Education Center, which was in charge of spending millions in government funds.
“We never have that information publicized,” replied New, who has since pleaded guilty to 13 felony counts of bribery, fraud and racketeering for her role in the welfare scheme.
It’s hard for me to see this all as a mistake.
His all-time record of interceptions — those were “mistakes.”
This isn’t one.