The Irony of Brett Favre

Favre has been accused of misusing funds intended for Mississippian welfare recipients to build a new volleyball stadium.

Illustration of Brett Favre.
Getty; The Atlantic

I played Division I football as a cornerback at Clemson University. The players provide America with many things. We give fans memories and celebrations, we give them a time to escape the problems of America, and we give our audiences and white teammates the illusion that we are equal on and off the field.

“I know from being in an NFL locker room for 20 years, regardless of race, background, money you grew up with, we were all brothers; it didn’t matter,” the Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre once told a reporter at USA Today.

But although Favre may be happy to declare his kinship with Black people, I’ve never heard him mention the injustices we face daily. Rather, he has publicly criticized Black athletes for kneeling in protest during the national anthem. He said the athletes’ demonstration “created more turmoil than good.” Recently, we learned that he has been accused of misusing funds intended to help the poorest residents of his native state, who are disproportionately Black.

According to Mississippi Today, text messages show that then-Governor Phil Bryant assisted Favre in diverting money set aside for welfare recipients to help build a new volleyball stadium at the University of Southern Mississippi, where the former NFL star’s daughter played. Mississippi Today reports that “Bryant has for years denied any close involvement in the steering of welfare funds to the volleyball stadium, though plans for the project even included naming the building after him,” one text shows. Favre’s attorney Bud Holmes denied that the athlete knew the money he received was from the welfare fund, and he hasn’t been charged in any crime.

But a text message from 2019 reveals that Bryant told Favre about the founder of a nonprofit who “has some limited control over Federal Funds in the form of Grants for Children and adults in the Low Income Community.” And Bryant cautioned Favre, according to ESPN, that using that money for the stadium “could result in violation of Federal Law.”

A few years earlier, Favre also took $1.1 million of welfare funds for motivational speeches he never delivered, money he repaid after the scheme was uncovered. He sent a text message to the woman who led the nonprofit that gave him the money: “If you were to pay me is there anyway the media can find out where it came from and how much?” He has not been charged with a crime for this, either, but the nonprofit leader and another person who assisted him with the scheme have pleaded guilty to fraud charges connected to the misuse of welfare money.

Favre was born in Gulfport, and attended the University of Southern Mississippi. The people of Mississippi have cheered and celebrated him for decades. This is a state where one in five people lives in poverty. Last year, the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits program was one of the lowest in the nation, issuing a monthly payment of $260 for a Mississippi family of three with no income, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. As of 2021, more than 21 percent of Mississippi children lived below the poverty line.

Favre’s deep ingratitude and his obliviousness to the plight of many Mississippians anger me. He’s had an unusual proximity to Blackness. He spent years planning offenses with his Black teammates, having dinner with his Black teammates, and earning more than $140 million throughout his career from a sport whose athletes are mostly Black. Did it ever cross his mind that those who were catching balls for him were also catching hell from America?

Instead of giving back to the needy families who helped make his wealth possible, Favre reportedly decided to take from them. “We obviously need your help big time and time is working against us,” he told Bryant during a text exchange in 2019. I’m reminded of something my late grandfather’s best friend, Mr. Earle, used to tell me. “Whiteness is not just a social construct; it is a business decision,” he would say. “Behind closed doors, it is always about shaking hands and securing the deal.”

As a former athlete whose competitiveness never goes away, I know how hard it is to recognize that a win for myself sometimes means a loss for others. Favre knew what his power could do, but winning seems to have been the only thing on his mind.

And that’s the problem with many athletes. Chasing success is so ingrained in our psyche that no win is ever enough. Favre appears to have been willing to go to the highest level of state government to finish his project at the cost of neglecting the humanity of those who exist in one of the nation’s most underprivileged regions. I bet this scandal is surprising for people who believe that the government is giving handouts only to Black and poor people. Instead it was a white millionaire football star who got the handout.

As one of my old coaches used to say, “You can’t do what they do.” I don’t have power like Favre. Power is not just about what you can do; power is also about what you are protected from. Despite what he did, Favre has faced little accountability. We are living in the same country, but we are playing different games.