The National Football League’s $350 million Play 60 health and exercise program for school kids is actually a trojan horse for NFL marketing, critics say, at a time when kids’ football participation is declining due to concerns about brain damage.
Now in its 10th year, Play 60 encourages kids to exercise for 60 minutes every day, offering a curriculum of football-themed drills and nutrition tips as well as $4,000 grants to buy gym equipment. The league has partnered with the American Heart Association, Special Olympics, United Way, and other public health advocates on the program, which has reached 73,000 schools, according to the league, more than half of all public and private schools nationwide.
The program aims to curb the epidemic of US childhood obesity, with 1 in 5 children now obese, triple the rate of the 1970s, according to the CDC. But in a new analysis in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues, communications scholar Adam Rugg of Fairfield University in Connecticut suggests the program, conducted in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture, is just a way for the NFL to sell football to young kids, despite recent revelations of the sport’s link to brain injuries.
“I think a central question in all of this is: How large a role should the NFL play in public health campaigns when medical research increasingly points to football itself as a public health detriment?” Rugg told BuzzFeed News. He called Play 60 “a way for the NFL to pitch itself to students, and [it] does so without much scrutiny or oversight.”
In response, NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said that Play 60 was created in response to calls from leading nonprofits and government agencies. The initiative has provided millions of children with new fields and playgrounds, he said, as well as educational tools to promote healthy eating habits. “We are proud of the work accomplished through the PLAY 60 initiative and look forward to continuing this important work with our partners.”
The AHA also defended the program.
“The American Heart Association is proud of the accomplishments of the Play 60 initiative,” Eduardo Sanchez, the AHA’s chief medical officer for prevention, said in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News. Some 4.5 million children have participated to date, he said. “PLAY 60 engages kids in physical activity, helping build healthy kids and future generations of healthy adults.”
Rugg sees it differently, pointing out that the program includes exercise drills such as the “NFL Coast to Coast Workout” and the “NFL Team Challenge,” as well as a “History of the NFL” quiz. These are clear examples of the league marketing to children without much oversight, Rugg suggests in his analysis. And Play 60 has become integrated into NFL-sponsored flag football leagues that in turn funnel kids into the USA Football’s “Heads Up” tackle football program for kids, supported by the NFL and subject to controversy over disputed claims that it reduces concussions.
About 1 million kids played tackle football nationwide last year, a 5% decline since 2008. The drop is widely linked to news of brain injuries among league athletes.
“Public education in this country has been getting less and less funding and creates the conditions to give corporations like the NFL access to schoolchildren without oversight,” Jeffrey Montez de Oca of the Center for Critical Sport Studies at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, told BuzzFeed News.
With Play 60, he added, “the NFL is responding to really bad PR over CTE” — chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain condition linked to repeated blows to the head — “because they know its biggest fans are made when they are young.”
Some health educators who have studied Play 60, however, suggest the criticism overlooks the benefits of the program. “There is little doubt that Play 60 serves the NFL’s fan development objectives by increasing youth involvement,” Emily Sparvero of the University of Texas at Austin told BuzzFeed News by email. “However, NFL Play 60 does make a positive contribution to kids and schools.”
A 2017 American Journal of Preventive Medicine analysis of 497 schools that participated in the program found small increases, around 3%, in aerobic capacity of kids who participated compared to those who didn’t. The study was funded by the NFL Foundation. Its authors did not respond to requests for comment.
The AHA partnership does provide the program with public health legitimacy, while the donations and “celebrity cachet” keeps students and teachers interested, Sparvero said.
A flag football coach himself (“it’s a great, great sport,” he said), Montez de Oca is less happy about such corporate advertising in schools. “This is obviously something that schools should be funded well enough to do on their own. And contributions from the NFL are never going to make up for cuts to education.”