For the better part of his 20 years in the NFL, the story of Brett Favre was tailor-made for a middle America that swoons over blue-collar football heroes.
We learned about his formative years in tiny Kiln, Mississippi, a town defined by the boom of the timber industry, decimated by the Great Depression, then sustained by decades of illegal moonshining ingenuity. We heard tales about Favre being raised by a pair of schoolteachers, then his serendipitous discovery as a high school football player while being coached by his dad, Irvin Favre. And of course, we heard about the football hurdles, with Favre lucking into a single scholarship offer from Southern Mississippi despite running an ill-fitting wishbone offense that rarely showcased the massive arm that would eventually deliver him to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
All of this would be part of Favre's tapestry as he carved out his illustrious two-decade NFL career, which included a Super Bowl win, three straight league MVPs, countless passing records at his retirement, an iron man streak for consecutive starts that is unlikely to ever be broken, and a ceaseless high tide of “gunslinger” compliments from John Madden and seemingly every other football analyst who ever laid eyes on him.
He was an exciting talent at the center of an iconic Green Bay franchise, the kind of player who basked in the national media attention and made fast friends with some important journalists. All while fitting into the mold of the league’s favorite historic commodity: an easily sellable white quarterback during a cable television era that would drive NFL popularity into space.
For most of his career, this was a defining part of the Brett Favre story. Since then, a lot has changed in the world. And with it, perhaps a small part of our perspective on the type of hero worship that often conceals something unsavory behind it.
The disappointing reality for many is simple: As we’ve moved on from Favre’s career, it has been challenging to keep up with the character questions surrounding him. And never more so than this week, when expansive reporting on a welfare fraud scheme in Mississippi is making Favre look either incomprehensibly incompetent or nefariously dishonest.
If you haven’t followed the work by Mississippi Today, you should. The general outline of Favre’s alleged involvement surrounds millions of dollars in welfare funds that were improperly diverted to build a volleyball stadium at Favre’s alma mater, Southern Miss (where Favre’s daughter was also a volleyball player). According to the reporting, Favre denied ever speaking to former Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant about the stadium, denied knowing where the money for the project came from, and generally denied any knowable wrongdoing whatsoever.
The problem? Texts have surfaced from Bryant that reference an alleged meeting with Favre about the project, as well as other texts featuring the former NFL quarterback allegedly asking an executive involved in the fraud scheme whether the media would ever be able to determine where the stadium project money came from or how much money was contributed.
At best, it makes Favre look like he’s got some significant explaining to do. At worst, he looks like a liar who played a part in diverting millions of dollars away from the poorest Mississippians so that a volleyball stadium could be built. Somewhere in the middle of all that is a question about entitlement, politics and how the rich and influential manipulate the system to essentially steal tax dollars earmarked for some of the neediest people in America.
So which is it? We need to know, because hanging in the balance is Favre’s good ol’ Mississippi reputation, which has (until recently) always framed him as the small-town kid who made it big and never forgot his roots. The guy who still keeps his home in America’s poorest state and has statues outside his high school stadium and inside the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. A classically embraced story of an athlete who reached the highest of peaks and then returned home and invested in many of the people that he couldn’t take with him.
Looking back now, it would be great to know how much of it was ever actually true. But there’s also another troubling part of all this — the reality that Favre has appeared to skate on a number of questionable issues over the years, while maintaining his largely undiminished iconic stature in the NFL.
Lest we forget, in the final weeks of his career, the NFL said Favre failed to fully cooperate with a league investigation into whether he sent former New York Jets employee Jenn Sterger multiple unsolicited photos of his penis while both were with the team in 2008. The NFL fined Favre $50,000 in the wake of that investigation in 2010. Sterger certainly hasn’t forgotten, commenting on Favre’s latest issues Tuesday with a series of tweets, including: “Oh.. NOWWWWW he gets in trouble for inappropriate texts.”
Then there was the 2013 civil settlement over a lawsuit brought by two massage therapists in response to allegedly sexually suggestive text messages Favre sent while with the Jets in 2008. Or the questionable business dealings, one involving litigation over bankrupt digital sports media company Sqor (which was ultimately thrown out, but not until after Favre had been named as one of the defendants in a fraud lawsuit brought by an investor); and in another case, a U.S. Justice Department investigation of Rx Pro, a brand that Favre heavily endorsed that later came under scrutiny for statements made about pain-relieving creams that hadn’t been approved by the FDA.
Of course, there's more beyond the legal realm. You had Favre making all types of eyebrow-raising statements, like having sustained “thousands” of concussions during his playing career, to telling Peyton Manning he didn’t know what a nickel defense was in the NFL until he asked Ty Detmer, to revealing to Peter King that he went to rehab three times in his career for substance abuse issues.
From a football perspective, it has been interesting to see how the public has absorbed those “revelations” and natural to wonder how it would play if someone like, say, Russell Wilson or a comparable Black quarterback ever said the same things. Never mind the other other football-related oddities that orbited Favre, like his repeated retirements or the offseasons he left the Packers wondering whether or not they would have a quarterback the following season. Or the time he gifted his friend Michael Strahan an NFL single-season sack record that basically undercut the legitimacy of what had been a coveted accomplishment. Or one of the forgotten hits, when Jay Glazer reported that Favre had given Detroit Lions general manager Matt Millen intelligence on the Packers during Favre’s season with the Jets. Favre denied it, of course.
These are all just a few examples of the static that has seemed to follow Favre through the years. None of it feels clean, or resembles a spotless reputation or character. Time will tell whether or not the fraud investigation in Mississippi has more layers, or whether the texts that have come to light ultimately shape the historical perspective of Favre as a person.
For now, the judgements are left to the beholder. But it’s worth noting that at least one person who spent a great deal of time unraveling Favre seems to have come away with a concrete and unambiguous opinion. That would be Jeff Pearlman, a respected author who has written multiple New York Times bestsellers and who in 2016 penned what is considered the most significant biography about Favre: “Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre.”
It turns out Pearlman has some thoughts following the release of the texts messages tying Favre to the Mississippi welfare fraud investigation.
As he put it Tuesday from his Twitter account: “On the day of extended Favre revelations, I wanna share something: I wrote a biography of the man that was largely glowing. Football heroics, overcoming obstacles, practical joker, etc. Yes, it included his grossness, addictions, treatment of women. But it was fairly positive. And, looking at it now, if I’m being brutally honest — I’d advise people not to read it. He’s a bad guy. He doesn’t deserve the icon treatment. He doesn’t deserve acclaim. Image rehabilitation. Warm stories of grid glory. His treatment of [Jenn Sterger] was ... inexcusable.”
That’s not exactly a synopsis tailor-made for middle America’s love affair with a football player. But it also might be the most truthful conclusion about this edition of hero worship gone wrong.