Saving Lives at Super Bowl LIII: A Social Justice Re-Cap of The Gaudiest Weekend in Atlanta

NFL player Antonio Brown helps pack up and donate 5,000 bowls of Campbell’s Chunky Soup for the Pittsburgh Food Bank on June 12, 2018 in Pittsburgh, PA.
Photo: Jason Merritt (Getty Images)

“Then get over here,” yelled a 20-something-year-old black woman into her phone outside of the posh Dior store in Buckhead section of Atlanta. I could overhear her complaining that a client hadn’t arrived in time and that she was going to lose money. In Los Angeles everybody is a writer. In D.C. everyone is a consultant, and in Atlanta everyone is doing public relations. This last week in Atlanta, as the city was flooded with business and philanthropy from all over the county, PR was probably the second most important job on the ground behind New England Patriots offensive lineman.

While most of America looks at the Super Bowl as a chance to eat wings and watch a game, for hundreds of organizations, charities, and associations it’s a chance to recruit; to raise awareness and highlight things that need to be fixed in America. In many levels the off-the-field action was more satisfying and fulfilling than anything that happened inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

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Much of the charity work in and around Atlanta during the Superbowl had to do with the Player’s Coalition, a group which has been polarizing to some players and NFL fans alike. For the uninitiated or the boycotting, the Player’s Coalition split in 2018 over some fundamental issues. Think of it like a Malcolm X vs. Martin Luther King Jr, type of moment, maybe Professor X vs. Magneto if that’s more your style.

Some players like Malcolm Jenkins (safety, Philadelphia Eagles), and Anquan Boldin (retired wide-receiver, Arizona Cardinals/Baltimore Ravens) wanted to work more with the NFL and seek a 90 million dollar investment in a social justice package, while other players like Eric Reid (safety, San Francisco 49ers/ Carolina Panthers), wanted to address larger issues of black oppression in the United States. The popular hot take among many African Americans is that the Player’s Coalition sold out thus tainting the NFL, the Super Bowl and ruining Christmas for everyone. The reality on the ground in Atlanta however was a bit more complex.

For all of the problems associated with the NFL the opportunity for charitable work during the Super Bowl, a week when over 400 million dollars would be flowing in and out of metro Atlanta, can’t be overlooked. In a large gothic looking tope building just up from Mid-town Atlanta I attended a launch for Selah Freedom, an organization dedicated to ending child sex trafficking. Atlanta is one of the sex trafficking capitals of the county; a problem so bad that Mayor Lance Bottoms has spoken about it frequently and it was even the topic of a Being Mary Jane episode. During Super Bowl week, sex trafficking gets even worse as boys and girls are kidnapped and shipped in to be sold and abused.

“Within 48 hours 80 percent of future victims are approached by someone who just says ‘Are you hungry? I bet you need a place to stay. I bet your parents don’t know how to love you, I’ll love you. And that’s it,” said Elizabeth Melendez Fisher, President and CEO of Selah Freedom.

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Fisher got involved in the fight against sex trafficking in 2010 when she was admittedly “looking for an underdog charity to support.” Once she found out just how pervasive sex trafficking is in America; over 300,000 children trafficked a year and being sold an average of 20 to 25 times a day, she had to get involved. When I asked Fisher how the Super Bowl and NFL players played a role in her charity work she was ebullient.

“They’re on it,” she said. Pointing out that the Atlanta police department arrested thirty-three men with four children during Super Bowl week, breaking up what would have definitely been a weekend of hell for young children. She pointed to several players, Tony Richardson (retired, New York Jets), Kirk Cousins (quarterback, Minnesota Vikings) and Tim Tebow (former quarterback, Denver Broncos/New England Patriots) who were actively involved in highlighting the dangers of this issue not just during Super Bowl week but in their home states as well.

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Of course not every charity during this week is as dark as saving children from some Taken type nightmare off of Highway 75. Some charities use the Super Bowl as a way to recruit and highlight issues that people usually don’t associate with the NFL.

Boldin’s wife, Dionne, is at the nexus of what really happens during the Super Bowl week. She is active in the NFL Player’s Coalition, as well as the Off the Field Players’ Wives Association. When I asked her about what she thought of the Coalition, which is still relatively new, she was quite enthusiastic.

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“I’ve seen them [Player’s Coalition] since their infancy,” she said. “I’ve seen them stay the course. No matter what has been going on around them. I’ve seen them pass policy. In my home state of Florida, they worked to pass Amendment 4, which is a big deal in Florida.”

Amendment 4 automatically restored voting rights for people with prior felony convictions, except those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, once they completed their sentence.

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During the mid-term elections of 2018, Anquan Boldin was instrumental in bringing Player’s Coalition members out to vote and push for Amendment 4. Players such as Warrick Dunn, Takeo Spikes and Alge Crumpler brought voters to the polls and handed out pizza and water to those waiting to vote in the Florida sun.

“I know in Massachusetts they [NFL Player’s Coalition] raised the age for juvenile trials from 7 to 12,” Dionne Boldin said. “I’ve seen them not just talk about things but move on things.”

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When I asked Dionne about what she would say to the many African Americans who have been boycotting the NFL because of the treatment of former quarterback Colin Kaepernick and others she was more cautious, but still direct.

“I don’t believe that it’s my place to comment on whether or not they’re boycotting or not. I just wish they knew all the facts or did the research and knew the statistics,” she said.

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In the end, behind the parties the bad half-time show, and the parade of high end sports cars, there is real work being done during Super Bowl week. Not just on the field of play, but the field of life, where men and women are using a week of unmitigated glamour to advocate for people who may never get a chance to even glimpse this level of opulence.

While the people pushing for women’s rights, fighting sex slavery and criminal justice reform know that the NFL has it’s problems, they are still trying their best to improve the lives of people with whatever credibility the league still has. So while many people out there may hate the game, there is certainly no reason to hate the players.

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