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Nfl slim chance fighting obesity

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Slim chances of NFL fighting obesity
By Derrick Z. Jackson, 9/5/2003

THE NATIONAL Football League is going to help the nation's children fight obesity. You can believe that when the Super Bowl commercials are for tofu.

As part of kicking off the 2003 season, the NFL gave a four-year, $2 million gift to Action for Healthy Kids. Action for Healthy Kids is a nationwide initiative chaired by former Surgeon General David Satcher to inspire youth to better nutrition and physical fitness. The 36 organizations listed as sponsors of the initiative include the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Public Health Association and , the National Education Association.

As much as I like pro football, this is like Henry VIII telling everyone else to go on a diet or off with their stomachs. Short of sumo wrestling, the NFL is the world's greatest exhibition of hanging guts. In 1992 the NFL had 67 players who were 300 pounds or more. This season, there are 328, an average of 10 per team. One in every five players is 300 pounds or more.

These guys are not eating tofu. Take my favorite team, the Green Bay Packers and its big man on campus, Gilbert Brown. Brown and his 350 to 400 pounds and jacket-size-66 chest stopped a lot of runners in the Packers Super Bowl appearances of 1997 and 1998. In ensuing years, he literally ate himself off the team, went to a fat farm, and is back on the team at an alleged 340 pounds.

I say alleged because there are another 45 players in the league listed at either 299, 297, 298, 296, or 295. Defending champion Tampa Bay has two players listed at 299. It is as if 300 is the magic number at which a player is worried about being declared fat.

Brown's favorite meal in his glory days was a Double Whopper with four slices of cheese that a local Burger King nicknamed the Gilbertburger. Whatever tomato, lettuce, and onion there were on the burgers were smothered in extra mayonnaise. Brown ate six or seven burgers a day if he had breakfast, 10 on days he skipped breakfast. The burgers oozed so much greasy slime that Brown said he had to cut them in half before eating them, "because if you don't, it goes all down your arm."

The NFL is slick enough to literally create something of a national holiday with the Super Bowl. But even Gilbert can see through the gift to Healthy Kids. It is only two years after Korey Stringer, a 335-pound player for the Minnesota Vikings, died of heatstroke. The NFL's vice president for youth football development, Cedric Jones, said in a press release, "We're excited that we can help Action for Healthy Kids improve nutrition and exercise in our schools through programs that are innovative and fun."

The most innovative way the NFL could help fight the child obesity epidemic does not require a single penny, let alone $2 million. All it needs to do is urge school systems to unplug their soda machines. That will not happen any time soon. Pepsi is the official soda of the NFL. It was highly prominent in the NFL Kickoff extravaganza in Washington, promoting its new vanilla soda.

Pepsi is bitterly fighting Coca-Cola for exclusive selling rights in school systems. Coke claimed over the summer that is was no longer going to market to children under the age of 12. But also this summer, Coke became a sponsor of the National PTA. Coke's top lobbyist, John Downs, now sits on the PTA board. Coincidentally, the NFL is also a sponsor of the PTA. You can bet when the NFL and PTA officials get together, they are not talking about the damage soda is doing to our children.

Coke was recently embarrassed when it admitted to rigging a marketing test of Frozen Coke three years ago in Richmond, Va. A Coke representative gave out $10,000 to children's organizations for free value meals at Burger King. The free meals then triggered coupons for free Frozen Cokes.

One child told the Wall Street Journal that he was told at his Boys and Girls Club, "If you finished your homework, you got a burger." A better promotion would be if children across America could provide proof from their pediatricians that they dropped 25 pounds, they could get $2 million worth of tickets to NFL games.

I wouldn't expect Gilbert Brown to be doing commercials for soyburgers anytime soon. But the NFL could list all the former players who died before 65. At least five Packers from the championship years of Vince Lombardi died between the ages of 42 and 61 from heart disease, cancer, and obesity. The NFL's Jones said, "There has never been a more important time for the NFL to demonstrate its commitment to the health of our younger generation." The best commitment would be the end of the league's intravenous connection to soda and the whoppers of the NFL weaning themselves off Whoppers.

Derrick Z. Jackson's e-mail address is

Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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