National Football League players who operate non-profit, charitable foundations may be skirting the law by directing most donations to operating costs.
At the 2023 conference of the Society of Professional Journalists, Jason Wolf of the Arizona Republic discussed three investigations he had conducted: a story around the authenticity of a $10,000 puck that was presumably one of the only pucks used to score by Jim Watson of the National Hockey League’s Buffalo Sabers. Another is how the pandemic affected athletic finances at the state’s largest universities, like Syracuse.
But what caught the audience’s attention most was what happens to money given to athletes’ charities by the National Football League’s prestigious ‘Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.’
The Payton Award carries a $250,000 donation to the charity of the winner’s choice.
Wolf explained how he found an anomaly in the public records of the various nonprofits of each winner, similar to his work with the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database and finding the anomalies in athletic finances during the pandemic. Wolf immediately started asking questions and researching to find out where some of the money was going.
“I pulled the public records for each of those nonprofits dating back to their date of inception. I pulled various numbers off of those forms and created spreadsheets. And when I looked at those, much like looking at the Knight-Newhouse College Athletics Database, I could see the anomalies. I could see what was different, see what I had questions about. And I went to find experts to answer those questions.”
From all the athletes who won the award, Wolf focused on the Denver Broncos’s quarterback, Russell Wilson, and his nonprofit, the Russell Wilson Foundation. Looking at the IRS and public records of the foundation, he noticed the incredibly low amount of money going to charity, while the rest goes to Wilson’s employees and friends in charge of the foundation.
“It’s 21-cents of every dollar that Russell Wilson’s foundation spent that year actually made to the charity, with the rest of that money being gobbled up by management, general expenses, and fundraising,” said Wolf.
“Nonprofits are supposed to spend a minimum of $0.65 to $0.75 of every dollar on actual charity. This is according to nonprofit watchdog groups, the Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, the Better Business Bureau, and the Wise Giving Alliance. So, $0.65 of every dollar is the bare minimum for an efficient nonprofit.”
“You have the director, which is a typical position, making $166,000 in a full-time job. You have Ryan Tarpley, who is chief strategy officer, another 40-hour-a-week job for this nonprofit, pulling in $209,000. Again, this is money that was donated to the charity,” he said.
‘Scott Pickett, another director, is pulling in $66,000 a year for part-time work. Scott Pickett, the guy making 66 grand for part-time work, is a high school buddy of Russell Wilson and the CFO of his marketing company. So he’s making this in addition to his full-time job.”
“I’ve been a sports reporter for 20 years now; I spent the last decade as a (Philadelphia) Seventy Sixers beat reporter, Tennessee Titans beat reporter, columnist, and enterprise reporter for the Buffalo News. So, I’ve been doing this for a while,” he said.
“ I’ve covered all levels of sports, from youth, high school, and college to the pros, NFL, and NBA, predominantly. And now I am the sports reporter, the rare sports reporter who does not go to games.”
Wolf explains the reality when speaking to the nature of sports investigative stories of the time commitment it takes to cover investigative projects and how he’s privileged that he’s been given time at work to cover these stories.
“They all take some time. That’s sort of the nature of sports investigations. And so I feel pretty fortunate to get some time to dig into some stories that hopefully matter and make a difference.”