The Green Bay Packers open their preseason schedule against the San Francisco 49ers on Friday night. Matt LaFleur’s team are among the favourites for the Super Bowl and their veteran quarterback is also aiming for a rare individual triumph.
Aaron Rodgers was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 2020 and 2021, and sealing the accolade again after a season during which he’ll turn 39 would be a stunning achievement for the Packers star. Only one player has won the award three times in succession: his predecessor at Lambeau Field, Brett Favre.
The 52-year-old retired in 2011, his status as one of the all-time great quarterbacks beyond dispute. Representing the Packers from 1992 to 2007, he is, like Rodgers, a Super Bowl champion.
Longevity also helps explain his celebrity: he made an NFL-record 297 consecutive starts over 19 seasons, during which his gunslinging style – his huge throws downfield often resulted in as many interceptions as touchdowns – endeared him to fans. The streak ended in 2010 aged 41 when he was with the Minnesota Vikings and suffered a shoulder injury.
The endurance feats came at a cost: for a time, Favre was addicted to painkillers. But, if anything, his struggles only made him more popular in the swathes of middle America that love a blue collar hero and constitute a large part of the NFL’s fanbase. They cheered after he led the Packers to a Monday Night Football victory over the Raiders the day after the death of his father; flooded him with support when his wife, Deanna, was diagnosed with breast cancer (she recovered and set up a foundation); and stood by him when he entered a rehab clinic.
Even an allegation that he sent explicit photos to a female sideline reporter – an NFL investigation said there was not enough evidence to establish Favre’s guilt – failed to seriously dent his popularity.
Now Favre is linked to a complex and wide-ranging welfare fraud scandal in his home state of Mississippi that has engulfed politicians, state officials and former wrestlers. And the fact that those who have suffered are the working-class people many saw him as representing could cause lasting damage to his status as an NFL folk hero.
It emerged in 2020 that up to $94m in federal funds earmarked to help some of the most vulnerable people in Mississippi, the nation’s most poverty-stricken state, was spent inappropriately, and in some cases, illegally. The state auditor, Shad White, has described the embezzlement, which prompted six people to be criminally charged, as the “largest public fraud in state history”. Last year White issued demands for the return of more than $77m in misspent taxpayer money handed out under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) programme.
Among those named by the auditor were Favre and three members of the DiBiase wrestling family: Ted DiBiase Sr – who wrestled in the WWF as The Million Dollar Man, and then founded a Christian ministry which allegedly received $1.7m in TANF funds – and his son Brett, another one-time wrestler. Brett DiBiase allegedly was paid $48,000 to provide education sessions on drug abuse but did not teach the classes, instead heading for treatment at a luxury rehab centre in Malibu. In December 2020, Brett DiBiase pled guilty to making fraudulent statements.
The Mississippi Community Education Center, one of two non-profit organisations involved in the case, paid Favre $1.1m for speaking and promotional engagements and autograph signings in 2017 and 2018. White has said there was no indication that Favre knew the money came from the misspent federal grants and Favre has not faced criminal charges over any of the allegations.
Favre has said little in public but has denied the auditor’s claim that he did not show up to the events in question. He insisted in 2020 that he “has never received monies for obligations I didn’t meet” and asserted that his foundation has donated “nearly $10m to underserved and underprivileged children in Mississippi and Wisconsin”. In 2021 he said he “would never knowingly take funds meant to help our neighbors in need”.
Favre returned the $1.1m, although he denies failing to fulfill speaking obligations. The state is also demanding an additional $228,000 in interest. With the goal of recovering over $20m through a civil process, in May Mississippi sued more than three-dozen individuals and entities, including Favre, two lesser-known former football players and the DiBiases.
But Favre’s lucrative appearance fees are not the only reason he is under scrutiny. The former quarterback, who suffered a concussion on the last play of his career, told Sports Illustrated in 2017 that he invested in Prevacus, a Florida-based start-up company aiming to develop a counter-concussion neurosteroid that could be nasally administered after a jarring hit.
Nancy and Zachary New, a mother and son who ran the Mississippi Community Education Center, pleaded guilty in April to charges of fraud against the government. This May’s lawsuit, which has a section titled “illegal diversions of TANF funds to enrich sports celebrities”, claims that the News, Favre and other figures connected with Prevacus conferred – even holding a meeting at Favre’s home – and the centre transferred $2.1m in state welfare grants to Prevacus. Favre has yet to respond to the allegations and a representative for him did not return a request for comment.
Then there is the volleyball facility. Mississippi Today, the non-profit news outlet that has led the way in covering the scandal, reported that Nancy and Zachary New directed $5m in welfare funds towards the construction of a volleyball arena at the University of Southern Mississippi. Favre was an enthusiastic booster of the project. The university is his alma mater and one of his daughters played volleyball there. Mississippi Today revealed last month that Brad Pigott, an attorney closely investigating the volleyball payment for the state welfare agency, was fired in contentious circumstances, resulting in the postponement of planned depositions, including Favre’s.
Pigott told the Guardian he would have had “many questions” for Favre, including probing the extent of his knowledge regarding the source of the money and his understanding of what constitutes a valid use of TANF funds.
“The whole pattern of casual expenditures of millions of dollars for people who are not themselves needy,” Pigott said, is “as morally wrong as it is legally wrong. Because of the obvious effects of our racist past as a state we have immense needs.”
Bennie Thompson represents a Jackson-area district where 38% of children are below the poverty line. “TANF funds should not be going to build volleyball stadiums,” the Democratic congressman told the Guardian. “It’s Robin Hood in reverse. Taking from the poor and giving to the rich.”
Thompson added that he is “absolutely incensed” at the misuse, which he termed “as egregious as it gets”, and wants a thorough federal inquiry. “There’s no question that the money’s misspent, there’s no question that the people who benefited from the money were ineligible, and so, for whatever reason, because some of them are rich, famous, politically connected, they have not been indicted, or any indication that they will be,” he said.
Favre endorsed the current governor, Tate Reeves, in 2019, describing him as “a friend”. Text messages seen by Mississippi Today show Favre’s close relationships with senior state officials, including the former governor, Phil Bryant (who has denied any wrongdoing). The report includes messages in which Favre and his business partner discuss giving Bryant shares so that the governor would lend his support to Prevacus (Bryant denies he ever considered taking stock in the company).
Favre, who earned $141m in salary during his career, charges $400 to record short personalised video messages on Cameo and was the site’s most popular athlete in 2020. He makes occasional media appearances, exuding an elder-statesman appeal as a silver-haired former ironman with a smooth Southern accent and a laidback charm.
“One of the things I am most proud of about all the things I have been able to achieve is being able to give away so much money and help so many people,” Favre told a reporter in early 2020 as he discussed his charitable efforts. “By no means are we perfect, but we do try to give back.”
Now, as investigations continue, the focus is on what was taken during an ugly episode that spotlights the power of wealth and celebrity as well as an ideological opposition among conservatives to handing out benefits to the poor.
Around the time that public dollars flowed with scant oversight to Favre, the DiBiases and other well-connected and wealthy individuals and companies, thousands of struggling families in Mississippi were rejected when they applied for aid worth up to $170 a month for a family of three. In 2016, according to ThinkProgress, 11,717 low-income Mississippi residents applied for TANF benefits. The Republican-led state approved and enrolled only 167 people.
“Our state has created a whole lot of barriers to even getting onto TANF in the first place,” Carol Burnett told the Guardian. She is executive director of the Mississippi Low Income Child Care Initiative, a non-profit advocacy organisation that aims to help strengthen women’s economic security.
“The number of people on welfare has shrunk so low that our state now has just a little over 200 adults in the whole state that are still on TANF,” Burnett added. “Mississippi has a long history of hostility to federally funded public benefits that support the poor.” Asked how she felt about the welfare scandal, she replied: “outraged would be a word.”
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