‘If you were to pay me, is there any way the media can find out?’: The downfall of Brett Favre

America at Large: Former Green Bay Packers quarterback subject of fund lobbying scandal

Around about the time he retired from the NFL, there was a book published called Letters to Brett Favre. Doting fans from across the country contributed eulogies and paeans to his career with the Green Bay Packers, many touching upon how he had impacted their lives in ways far beyond football. Some regarded him as an inspirational, almost spiritual figure, others just delighted in his swashbuckling approach to playing quarterback and that “aw shucks”, modest southern boy demeanour. All agreed that here was one of the truly great, downhome American heroes.

“He came to work in jeans and a T-shirt and left in the same way,” wrote Michael from Wisconsin. “He played the game of football the way it’s supposed to be played.”

Shortly after that hagiography came out, it emerged Favre, a married father of two daughters, had, unsolicited, sent explicit texts and photographs of his genitalia to Jenn Sterger, a model turned television reporter. A subsequent lawsuit filed against him by two massage therapists alleging sexual harassment was settled out of court. Then Jeff Pearlman’s forensic biography, Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, laid bare how the family man schtick had been a complete sham all along. He had been a hard-drinking womaniser battling addiction to pain-killers for much of his time in Green Bay.

As is the American way, his greatness on the field meant his duplicitous public image didn’t seem to damage his commercial stock much off of it. In retirement, he built up a typical portfolio of endorsement deals and a media presence that included his own weekly radio show and a recurring gig on ESPN in Milwaukee. Those broadcast gigs are on hold for now, however, following extensive accusations Favre was part of a larger conspiracy to defraud his native state of Mississippi of $77 million in welfare funds. Imagine Roy Keane being implicated in a labyrinthine plot to rip off the poorest citizens of Cork.

Although no legal charges have been brought yet, text messages obtained by Mississippi Today, a watchdog journalism start-up, show the 52-year-old garnering more than $7.1m from the coffers of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). He successfully lobbied for $5m to build a new volleyball arena at the University of Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was enrolled and played the sport, and got $2.1m for Prevacus, a biotech company he was involved with that was supposedly working on a concussion treatment. As the name suggests, TANF money is specifically designed to go to hungry households and, unfortunately, there is no shortage of those where he comes from.

By almost every available socio-economic metric, Mississippi is the poorest state in the union, boasting the highest poverty rate, the lowest median household income, and the worst life expectancy. Top of the table for obesity, one in four kids there go to bed hungry and adults skip healthcare due to financial considerations more often than any other place in the nation. Nowhere in the country needs welfare funds more desperately; the very people who have worshipped Favre and revelled in his achievements for decades, the very people whom he is now accused of trying to boondoggle.

These are only the latest revelations. Having moved back to Hattiesburg, Mississippi in retirement, he was given $1.1m by the state in 2017 to deliver motivational speeches as part of an anti-poverty drive called Families First for Mississippi. Nobody is quite sure why or to what purpose this deal was done. As has been asked by more than one outlet, was his role to somehow inspire the poor to be, eh, less poor? And why would somebody who earned $140m during his career charge his own local government for what was essentially a charitable endeavour?

In any case, he never gave a single speech. When the story broke that he was being pursued by an auditor to pay the money he received then back to the public purse, he duly did. Except the multi-millionaire stiffed the neediest in his state on $228,000 in interest owed.

During 20 seasons in the NFL, Favre won one Super Bowl, three Most Valuable Player awards and set umpteen passing records. With his lauded blue collar work ethic, he also started a remarkable 297 consecutive regular season games, an achievement most people expect never to be surpassed. Beyond statistics, he was mesmerising with ball in hand, dubbed “gunslinger” because of the way in which he’d use his improbably strong right arm to throw his way out of trouble with a game on the line in the fourth quarter. Cool under pressure. Unflappable. Thrilling.

If those are the reasons he’s enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s not difficult to see why there are already calls to have his bust removed from that institution. Retired athletes regularly get embroiled in business affairs that go awry but this is different. Reams of damning text messages between Favre and public officials (some of whom have already pled guilty) show him discussing various aspects of these schemes. In one, he wonders if it’s possible to defray construction costs for the volleyball arena by using prisoners as labour. In another, he asks, “If you were to pay me, is there any way the media can find out where it came from and how much?”

They assured him that could never happen. They were wrong.