NFL launches Inspire Change initiative as part of social change partnership with players

As part of its partnership with players on social justice issues, the NFL on Friday kicked off its Inspire Change initiative, highlighting the league's wide-ranging efforts to effect positive change in underprivileged communities.

A new television spot, which showcases owners and players collaborating in the first season of their seven-year, multimillion-dollar deal, will air this weekend during the divisional playoffs and continue through the Super Bowl. Within the new initiative, the league will promote its work in education and economic development, community and police relations, and criminal justice reform.

The league and the Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with owners on behalf of players who protested during the national anthem the past three seasons to bring attention to racial injustice, will also participate in several events related to social justice during Super Bowl week in Atlanta. Founded by Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin, the coalition, with the NFL's help, has been a leader among activist groups in championing criminal justice reform.

The coalition and the NFL have come a long way together, said Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations. He played a key role in brokering the agreement, which as recently as last season seemed highly unlikely to be completed.

"Now, with a season behind us, look at where we are going into 2019," Vincent said via telephone. "I'm talking about a true partnership. I'm talking about policy change. I'm talking about using the platform for the greater good. So that part is not only refreshing, it's like, 'Look at what we can do when we actually work together.'"

Likewise, Anna Isaacson, the NFL's senior vice president of social responsibility, is pleased with the direction of things. However, she acknowledged that the NFL must continue to play the long game to truly make a difference.

"We've come a long way, but we have room to keep growing. That's an important piece for us to constantly look at," Isaacson said via telephone. "We have been in this for the last couple of years. We've done the listening. We've met with dozens of organizations. We've heard from people. We've heard from our players.

"And now we're in a place where we can put a stake in the ground and actually make an impact. But we [the NFL and players] have a lot of work to do, and there's a lot of work to do in our communities. This is a long-term commitment."

In 2018, the NFL committed $8.5 million to the social justice partnership, a league spokesperson wrote in an email. Additionally, the NFL Foundation provided $2 million in grants for clubs, retired players and active players. The total commitment in 2019 is expected to reach $12 million.

However, the figures don't include money raised by clubs and players as part of the social justice matching funds that each club has established. Over the length of the league's deal with players, the total commitment could exceed $89 million, the spokesperson wrote.

Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had a major role in starting the process. By first sitting and then kneeling during the national anthem more than two years ago to shine a light on police brutality and systemic oppression, Kaepernick ignited a movement and thrust the NFL into a nationwide debate about the meaning of equality. Friday's launch of the initiative traces back to Kaepernick's initial decision to protest during the anthem.

The league's detractors argue that, considering its vast financial resources, commissioner Roger Goodell and owners haven't committed enough money in an attempt to improve society as a whole.

The NFL is doing what it can, Vincent said. And most important, he added, it's doing what it should.

"We're not a social justice group, and we will never be that," Vincent said. "We're just playing a part in the general conversation. Are we doing our part? We've made progress. But we're not there yet."