Impact for Impact: Police and Philanthropy in Semi-Pro Football

By David NaarLast Updated Apr 26, 2021 5:33:55 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

In 1974 and 2005 respectively, Burt Reynolds and Adam Sandler played washed-up quarterbacks who lead a team of prisoners against a team of guards. In both versions of The Longest Yard, the game they played was meant to be an exhibition match against the prison guards, who play in football leagues of their own against other police officers.

In the films, the idea of a football league is portrayed as audacious, a far out idea that can only exist somewhere as football-loving as Texas. "Football players gotta do something after their schooling," the Warden, and antagonist of the film, says in both adaptations. In actuality, police football is very much a thing. So, what is the world of semi-pro football? We’re here to help you navigate some of its highlights.

Defining the Open-Ended: What Is Semi-Pro Football?

Semi-pro football is kind of like filling in "D: all the above," on a multiple choice test question. High school, popwarner, and other youth leagues are regulated by age. College football has strict parameters set in place by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). But earning the title of "professional," as National Football League (NFL) players do, means that athletes are getting paid to play the game.

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The label of "semi-pro" does not necessarily mean a minor league team where athletes are getting paid. In most cases, everyone on a semi-pro football team is out there for the love of the game. A "minor league" in football is a somewhat controversial notion because the NFL, and even other professional leagues like the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the Arena Football League (AFL), have been criticized for using college football and thus, educational institutions, to cultivate professional players for their leagues without making any investment in them.

There are a lot of different leagues and types of semi-pro football out there. Some of them follow AFL rules and have fewer linemen playing the game. Others are flag-football leagues with no shoulder pads or linemen. Some of these leagues are local and run by community spaces and gyms. There are also semi-pro leagues that play regionally and, in some cases, nationally.

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What unites these teams — and most community sports in general — is some sort of cause that teams can rally behind. Almost every football team has some philanthropic pillar in their foundational base. Fundraising is great for team morale, but football in general requires fundraising of its own.

The Broadway Energy of a Football Game: The Costs of Semi-Pro Leagues

One league that sticks out, in part due to current events, is the National Public Safety Football League (NPSFL). The NPSFL is an umbrella institution created to unite different teams of first responders throughout the country. What started in the mid-90s as a police-only football league (as seen in The Longest Yard) opened up to corrections officers, firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders, mostly due to funding restraints.

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The NPSFL is a 501(c)3 nonprofit. Twenty-two teams in over 10 states from California to Connecticut face off in friendly comradery, all while fundraising. Most of those teams are also nonprofits themselves, and every team has at least one beneficiary listed on the NPSFL’s website, though some have as many as nine.

Many of the selected charities are geared towards helping officers and families of police officers in need. Other charities include organizations that support youth nonprofits and sports teams. However, none of the beneficiaries include organizations that support women who weren’t once married to a police officer, nor do they benefit any charities that acknowledge, let alone hope to dismantle, systemic racism. It’s also worth noting that none of these organizations specifically cater to queer people, who have been marginalized by police throughout history.

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NPSFL’s website boasts that the league raised over $200,000 raised for charities in the past year alone. While this might sound excellent, what’s often overlooked in football is that every game’s many moving parts requires time and resources. A football game is less like a pickup soccer game and more like a Broadway production.

With some semi-pro teams, players pay a flat fee that covers their gear, travel and accommodation fees, and other amenities. Helmets can go for $200 or more. Quality shoulderpads can go for $250 or more. Plus, game pants, practice pants, practice jerseys, game jerseys, cleats, and close to a collection’s worth of underclothing to rotate out (or at least one outfit) really adds up.

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Roster sizes for the NPSFL can vary from 16 to over 50 players. Technically, in most leagues, a team only needs 11 players to participate in a legal game. Since playing an entire football game can be more exhausting than one might think, and since a harsh reality of football is that injuries are common, most colleges have players strictly playing one position on one side of the ball. This equates to 22 players minimum, plus the potential to add kickers, punters, and long snappers to the mix. Having one or more backups is almost necessary in most leagues, and this is why some colleges will have over 100 players on their rosters.

The NPSFL rosters aren’t typically in the hundreds, thankfully, but it does get costly even having a small football team. Traveling is complicated. Methods of travel can mean sharing fans and carpooling or getting a bus. With all of the gear required to play the game, a lot of cargo space is necessary. And, if semi-pro teams play in national leagues, flying can get costly.

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It’s also important to note that almost every football game requires first responders of its own. Since the likelihood of a compound fracture or severe concussion is so much higher in football than in other sports, nearly every game has two paramedics and even an ambulance on site. This, plus needing to pay referees to officiate the games, can really run up costs.

Knowing that these costs and more are out there, it’s not surprising to see that the NPSFL finished in the red for five of the last 10 years, according to ProPublica. As a result, most semi-pro football is able to happen in part due to sponsorship. Despite the league’s charitable angle, looking at the numbers can make one question who semi-pro football ultimately serves.

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The True Cost of Semi-Pro Football

Medical knowledge continues to reveal just how dangerous playing football can be. "Concussion" can be a four-letter word on the football field, but that doesn’t mean they don’t happen at a rate higher than most comparable sports. There is also the matter of non-skull related injuries. Stepping on a football field for a game puts one at risk for paralysis, broken bones, flesh-eating bacteria (like MRSA), infections, illness exchange and other unfortunate issues.

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With the average age of semi-pro football players being older than that of college football, the brittleness of human bones and longer recovery times start to come into play. Much of the demographic that plays semi-pro football is going to have full-time jobs, families, and other duties, which means football isn’t their top priority. If it’s police officers and other first responders playing ball, the game could take them away from their oaths to project and serve.

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Semi-pro football is a great outlet for those that love football or never got to experience the game while they were younger. Ultimately, these teams are dedicated to doing good and have a lot of testimonials to support that. (Hopefully there aren’t any Longest Yard-type situations, because that would be a little bit awkward to watch.)

Looking at football and philanthropy on a more national/global level, one can’t ignore the issue of community funding. Calls to "defund the police" are shaping, if not defining, the cultural climate across cities and communities all over the U.S. and the world. In relation to semi-pro football and the NPSFL in particular, one may wonder: if communities were properly funded in the first place, would we even need the philanthropic endeavors of semi-pro football?

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The United States spends more on police departments than any other category of spending — except for education and the military. That’s $340 per taxpayer, 9.2% of all government spending, and over $193 billion dollars in 2017. The roughly $200k that the entire NPSFL raises simply pales in comparison to the budget allocations for the police and military.

In becoming a non-profit that does not pay taxes, the NPSFL chooses which organizations they fund. And many of these beneficiaries address historically underfunded problems. For example, Ronald McDonald Houses are a major beneficiary of the NPSFL, but if more funding was allocated to the healthcare system, that charity likely wouldn’t need so much backing to begin with.

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What’s ultimately happening is that there is no effort being made to try and help causes and communities that are most negatively affected by police presence and police spending. One solution, which looks a lot like reparations, would be to support charities that distribute bail funds or organizations that provide legal defense for people of color, supply immigration assistance, invest in women’s healthcare, and/or uplift queer spaces. If every semi-pro football team chose to support marginalized communities, or made strides to be part of more diverse communities and concerns, their philanthropy might create real change.