Why The NFL is A Leader in Social Impact

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The expectations for this year’s Super Bowl were high, but I don’t think anyone predicted that this year’s event would turn out to be America’s most-watched program since the moon landing, with an astounding 123.4 million viewers tuning in to the big game.

While the Taylor Swift effect certainly was a factor in achieving that staggering number, there is more to the modern NFL than celebrity fans, touchdowns and tailgate parties. The league has grown into a case study for a corporation seeking to support its communities across the country.

The NFL has been a long-time supporter of charitable causes, but in recent years, it has significantly ramped up its player safety, social responsibility and social justice initiatives.

A visit to the NFL’s Community page on its website shows the breadth of the league’s initiatives, from environmental sustainability to domestic violence education, youth fitness, early cancer detection and prevention, and building character in young people.

I learned of the massive scope of the NFL’s social responsibility work through another of its initiatives, Inspire Change, the league’s social justice platform. Its goal is to reduce barriers to opportunity, particularly in communities of color. It operates at all levels of the league, from current and former players to the NFL teams and their owners and up to the league head office.

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Inspire Change facilitates NFL investment in organizations, programs and initiatives that reduce barriers to opportunity, anchored in four pillars: Education, Economic Advancement, Community-Police Relations, and Criminal Justice Reform.

My connection to the program came from a partnership between Inspire Change, my organization (Legacy+), and the Martin Luther King III Foundation.

Martin Luther King III, his wife Arndrea Waters King, and their daughter Yolanda Renee King were seeking ways to commemorate the upcoming 100th birthday of Martin’s father, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The result was Realize the Dream, a bold new initiative that aims to transform, unify and uplift America by rallying communities to perform 100 million hours of service by the 100th anniversary of Dr. King’s birth.

In seeking to amplify Dr. King’s vision of unity and launch the historic community service program, the NFL was an obvious choice. No other platform has the reach or worldwide profile held by the NFL. In 2023, the league averaged 17.2 million viewers per game for its 272 regular season games, creating a potential viewing audience unmatched in North America.

Those significant audience numbers rise exponentially during the playoffs, so we worked closely with the NFL to launch the five-year service campaign during Wildcard Weekend, which coincided with MLK Day 2024.

The game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened with a commemorative coin toss with Martin Luther King III, Arndrea Waters King and Yolanda Renee King.

A series of events and activations took place over the weekend, with MLK decals and Dr. King’s iconic “Be Love” message affixed to the helmets of all 318 players participating in the weekend games. The “Be Love” and “It Takes All of Us” messages were also stenciled into the end zones for all games.

The game opened by the Kings drew an audience of over 29.2 million viewers. While that number seems low compared to the viewership for the Super Bowl, the game was ESPN’s second-most watched NFL game in its history. Public service announcements aired over the weekend on all the networks covering the games (ESPN, ABC and CBS), with over 180 million viewers taking in the games and viewing the powerful Realize the Dream messaging.

Beyond its ability to reach tens of millions of viewers, we looked for the NFL’s support due to its work to raise awareness on diversity and equity issues. Along with Inspire Change, the league is on the record in committing to increasing the number of black head coaches and executives so that the diversity on the field is reflected back on the sidelines and in owners’ boxes.

To that end, the league adopted the Rooney Rule in 2003. Named after a former Pittsburgh Steelers owner who also served as the chair of the league’s diversity committee, the rule set out hiring and interview requirements for filling coaching and front office positions to ensure more minority candidates were considered and hired.

Related: Why All of Us Need to Join the Fight for Workplace Diversity

The NFL’s support for Realize the Dream is yet another positive step in accelerating the league’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and it may already be reaping benefits.

Within days of the launch of the campaign, the New England Patriots named Jerod Mayo as their new head coach, the Atlanta Falcons hired Raheem Morris to lead their team, and the Las Vegas Raiders elevated interim head coach Antonio Pierce to full-time status.

While those three hirings happening so close to the launch of Realize the Dream could be written off as coincidence, they may also reflect how the league’s open commitment to diversity can influence the actions of ownership, teams, and players.

That is the power of corporate impact initiatives that permeate an entire organization. It would be one thing for the NFL to make a lump sum donation to Realize the Dream or some other cause, but the level of buy-in was visible on team uniforms and helmets, in the end zones on the field, all while tens of millions of viewers watched from homes and restaurants.

While corporations making donations to charitable organizations is a commendable way to try and give back, concrete actions like those being taken by the NFL deliver true impact and will ultimately be the drivers of change.

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