Sports are a cultural phenomenon. Now more than ever, athletes are leading cultural conversations in ways beyond their actions on the field.
The movement for athletes to speak up and act on social issues—namely racial injustice—has been growing for years now. We’ve seemingly reached a tipping point where athletes are doing things that would’ve been unthinkable ten years ago, like directly calling out their league’s commissioner or boycotting playoff games. Maybe you’ve heard about players kneeling during the national anthem.
While the coverage of these social issues has reached new heights in 2020, NFL player Richard Sherman embraced his role as a leader in this movement long before this year.
“I’ve used my platform to help shed light on some of the racial prejudices Black people face on a day-to-day basis,” Sherman says. “As a Black man, we learn different rules growing up. We learn how to act around police, how to act around authoritative figures, how to not appear intimidating, how to avoid conflict. Those are things you learn to maneuver as a Black man to keep you out of bad situations. Because if I’m not in my athletic gear, stereotypes make me appear as an intimidating Black man. I think in society these stereotypes have led to a lot of the problems we are dealing with today, and people have become tired of it.”
In addition to being one of the best players in the NFL, Sherman epitomizes the modern athlete: fearlessly outspoken, savvy with business (he negotiated his own contract with the San Francisco 49ers), innovative, and generous. And he’s doing more than just using his voice.
“From the moment I entered the NFL, giving back was a top priority for me. I formed my nonprofit Blanket Coverage as soon as I possibly could. My life experiences have led me to want to be a light for others. Coming from Compton/Watts, the odds were really stacked against you. It all starts with academics and excelling in academics is what allowed me to attend Stanford. I want to help people understand that they can still achieve greatness despite their circumstances,” he says.
Blanket Coverage’s mission and work are impactful on a grassroots level. It was formed to provide under-resourced youth the opportunity to achieve their academic goals by getting the basics right: donating backpacks, laptops, stationary, any and all of the school supplies that are often taken for granted. “I’ve witnessed firsthand the uphill battle underprivileged students face,” says Sherman. “We were on an uneven playing field compared to other kids. Several of my classmates didn’t have pens, paper, calculators, laptops, etc. How can someone have success in Calculus without a calculator?”
The nonprofit—whose name is a double entendre nodding to Sherman’s abilities on defense to cover his opponent like a blanket—has evolved to provide essential household items as well: beds, hygiene products, clothing, food and helping pay off student food debt. “We also surprise the family and kids with some fun items as well. We just want to be a bright spot in their day,” he says.
To keep Blanket Coverage running, it takes a team consisting of Sherman’s wife, father-in-law, business partner, and other family friends. “One of the most challenging aspects is the ability to stay organized when there are so many different moving parts,” he says. “For instance, one of our biggest fundraising events for years was the celebrity softball game. The first year we did it we sold out a minor league stadium and had over 8,000 attendees. The second year we had to find a bigger venue so we contracted with Safeco Field in Seattle and over 22,000 fans were able to attend. We had to secure the celebrity talent for the game, provide volunteers to make sure everything ran smoothly, secure corporate sponsorships and execute on the sponsorship deliverables, provide food for thousands, and put together a softball game that looked like a professional event. There was so much planning and organization that went into this to make sure everything ran smoothly.”
Especially given the circumstances around COVID-19 and social distancing, Sherman’s team relies on technology. “We need to make sure everyone is on the same page so no issues arise,” says Sherman. “As years went on, we learned from past mistakes and were able to work smarter. That really came through the introduction of utilizing tools like Dropbox. Especially Dropbox Spaces allows us to organize everything, where regardless of where you are, you can see everything: the budgets, the contracts, all in one place. It’s just made our life so much easier.”
Since Blanket Coverage’s inception, the team has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in supplies, to thousands of students at hundreds of schools. “We have an aim to really continue the same path to benefit as many students as possible each year. We are very fortunate to have some incredible donors who have set the foundation up for success for years to come. I really want to be able to expand Blanket Coverage to help students nationwide. We have been able to help predominantly on the West Coast in the Seattle Area and northern and southern California. It’s my goal to be able to impact more students throughout the country,” Sherman says.
To learn more about Blanket Coverage, visit their website here.