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NFL Banning Players from Charity Poker Event is Bad PR

Raise a Hand for Africa

It is great whenever a celebrity, organization, or corporation can use their fame or resources to benefit a charity. One such organization that has helped raise millions for charity over the years is the National Football League. Unfortunately, the NFL recently dropped the ball by doing an injustice to a charity, the Starkey Hearing Foundation, by banning more than 30 NFL players from participating in the "Raise Your Hand for Africa" charity poker tournament on Saturday, Feb. 19, 2011.

For those who don’t know, the charity tournament was hosted by Phil Hellmuth at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas and drew a mix of top poker professionals, celebrities, and NFL stars. Shortly before the tournament was set to begin, the NFL commissioner’s office issued an edict that none of the players could play in the event, although they were allowed to serve as spectators. The NFL has long instituted hard-and-fast rules prohibiting its players from gambling in any form, and apparently they’re still of the mind that poker is not a game of skill. To me, that is the equivalent of saying that football lacks skill and is a game of chance, which is ludicrous. What makes this situation even worse is the fact that they were banned from a charity tournament at which 100 percent of the proceeds went to the charity.

Created in 1984, the Starkey Hearing Foundation has worked diligently for the past 27 years to promote hearing health throughout the world by delivering more than 50,000 hearing aids each year to those in need. In addition, it seems the charity may be around in the poker world for quite some time, as Hellmuth seems intent on working with the charity in the future, even tweeting on February 21: “Rwanda!! Wife and I are going on a ‘Hearing Mission’ with to Rwanda! Gonna fit kids w Hearing Aids.”

So, who were the players who were banned from playing? Among them were Adrian Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald, Visanthe Shiancoe, Vernon Davis, Bernard Berrian, Larry Johnson, Roy Williams, Chris Canty, Mark Clayton, Bryant McKinne, and Curtis Lofton. Obviously, such notable names helped draw attention to the charity, especially considering that they were joined by celebrities like Steve Martin, Lou Ferrigno, Verne J. Troyer, Don Cheadle, Sam Moore, Jordin Sparks, Kevin Sorbo, Daniel Romer, and Kenny Johnson; likewise, poker pros Johnny Chan, Jason Chan, Joe Reitman, Howard Lederer, Suzie Lederer, Annie Duke, Michelle Lau, and Liz Lieu who all were in attendance.

I don’t contend that NFL players should be allowed to gamble, but I do argue that a charity poker tournament should not be associated with gambling. No money stood to be won, though prizes were available, and the players entered with the sole intention of helping benefit the charity, not themselves. I think the hard-line policies of the NFL, enforced by Commissioner Roger Goodell, are good for the NFL, but refusing to make exceptions when circumstances certainly call for it is ridiculous, especially when it contradicts the NFL’s desire for its players to be good public figures. What would have happened had Peterson chosen to ignore the edict and played? Would Commissioner Goodell have suspended him for helping a charity? I almost wish one on of the players had done that, just to see what would have happened.

Here, NFL players were able to use their celebrity to help raise money for a charitable cause simply by participating in the “Raise Your Hand for Africa” event. Not only were they willing to volunteer their time and pay the $2,000 buy-in, they knew the opportunity to play against an NFL star would draw awareness and more players to the event. Can the NFL honestly say this shines a negative light on the NFL and players? I think it is quite the opposite. In fact, it was denying the players the opportunity to participate that shed a negative light on the NFL. After all, the NFL was essentially taking $60,000 (30 players at $2,000 buy-in each) out of the charity’s pockets.

At least the players were allowed to attend as spectators and were not banned altogether. To their credit, every player stuck around to socialize with the event’s participants, and likely donated what would have been their $2,000 buy-ins to the Starkey Hearing Foundation. They were dealt a bad beat, but handled it like champs. It is no wonder the league and players don’t see eye to eye at the moment and can’t seem to reach a reasonable agreement, but that’s a whole different story altogether.

Even with the sudden withdrawal of the sports superstars, the event was still a hit with Hellmuth keeping the atmosphere upbeat. More than 350 players helped raise awareness for the Starkey Hearing Foundation, with the top prize, a 2011 CSM #2 Shelby Mustang, going to winner Debbie Gostowski (Effingham, Illinois) of the Family Care Hearing Center. The NFL has not commented or issued a press release on the situation, but, hopefully, the NFL will wise up in the future and ease its anti-gambling restrictions when it applies to charity poker tournaments. If they don’t, they’re deliberately denying charities much-needed awareness and donations. Poker has done a lot for charities, and so has the NFL. I don’t see why they can’t do it together.

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*Photo courtesy of the Pros For Africa.

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