As the NFL's biggest spotlight shined on Cleveland last weekend for the 2021 NFL Draft, the league, Cleveland Browns and other partnerships in the area went to work on maximizing the massive platform created by the draft to improve the Northeast Ohio community.
From NFL commissioner Roger Goodell assisting in groundbreaking efforts for a new football field, to Dee Haslam promoting the goals of the Cleveland Browns Foundation's "Stay in the Game! Keep Learning, Every Day" Network, the draft provided a monumental opportunity for the Cleveland community to create new campaigns and attain progress in previous initiatives, many of which were slowed in the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But following the conclusion of the draft, there's plenty of evidence to suggest the community events of draft weekend will leave a positive footprint in Cleveland for years to come.
"I think that anywhere the NFL goes with one of its temporal events, it is the primary focus for the league to make an impact on the local community, and to really leave a legacy behind," said Anna Isaacson, Senior Vice President of Social Responsibility for the NFL. "I think Cleveland was no different than that."
Several of the initiatives, campaigns and organizations took advantage of the "Power of Sports" Summit, which took place during all three days of the draft at Progressive Field and allowed participants to celebrate themes of diversity, equity and inclusion and demonstrate the power of sport to be a catalyst for positive change. Dee Haslam and JW Johnson were among panel speakers who discussed progress from the "Stay in the Game!" Network and how to continue efforts to address the digital divide.
Dozens of organizations from both a local and national scale gathered in the concourses of the stadium and constructed demo and exhibit tables to create impactful experiences for attendees. Registration was free, and the event also included live panel discussions, keynote speakers and virtual events to ensure a variety of topics related to adaptive sports, gender equality, LGBTQIA+ athletes, mental health and racial equality were covered.
"We're just excited to have such a big event in Cleveland and have a huge opportunity to interact with as many different people as possible about things we're doing in our specific area," said Mayah Nunn, who spoke with people at the Young Women's Christian Association of Greater Cleveland table on the first day of the Summit.
Nunn mentioned how their organization was able to use the draft platform to promote the YWCA's "21 Day Racial Equity and Social Justice Challenge," which encouraged members of the NFL family and fans to listen to podcasts, read articles, and watch videos that deepen their understanding of topics such as racism and identity, systemic racism and intersectionality.
"We were able to create a lot of important dialogue about our mission," she said. "We find it really important to have these conversations that might be difficult to have, so we try to facilitate those conversations by providing different challenge materials every single day."
Outside of the Summit, other efforts were made to leave a more visual impact on the Cleveland community. NFL Green held a tree restoration activity at Big Creek Reservation, built a community garden at William Rainey Harper School and hosted a waterfront cleanup at North Coast Harbor and a portion of the waterline at Burke Lakefront Airport.
At Shaw Stadium, a grass field that had been used for decades is set to be replaced with a new turf surface that will provide a better playing surface for Shaw High School sports programs and the East Cleveland community. Browns head coach Kevin Stefanski, as well as the Haslam and Johnson families and commissioner Roger Goodell, were present for the groundbreaking ceremony and spoke about how crucial it was for the school and community to receive a new field.
"When we come to the draft in each city, one of the things we really try to do is make an impact and leave a legacy," Goodell said. "Really, that is what we are here to do is to support the Cleveland Browns Foundation and the Haslam family."
For Shaw High School and the East Cleveland area, the new field and special appearance from the commissioner was the perfect way to encapsulate how football can leave a positive impact on a community.
"We've been asking for a new field for probably 20 years," said Dr. Henry Pettiegrew, Superintendent of the East Cleveland School District. "The Browns stepped up and were able to partner with us so that we can make it a reality. This community was finally able to replenish its athletic fields, and we wouldn't have been able to do it without the generous donations of the Browns."
The NFL and Browns also hosted a "Play Football Town Hall" that featured Roman Oben, NFL Vice President of Football Development, and LeCharles Bentley, NFL Senior Advisor of Player Performance and Development, to promote proper playing fundamentals and discuss the transferable skills that are building blocks to success in life on and off the field. An NFL FLAG Regional Tournament was also hosted at the Hall of Fame Village Sports Complex.
As part of the NFL's "Draft-a-Thon" initiatives, which included efforts to support food insecurity, health disparities, mental health and the digital divide, the league and Cleveland Browns contributed items and aid to the Greater Cleveland Food Bank Distribution on April 27 to support over 2,000 people with fresh produce and shelf stable food. A $35,000 donation was also made to the food bank to help it support resources for thousands of more people in the future.
"We know that (food insecurity) has been a massive issue throughout the pandemic and before the pandemic," Isaacson said. "(The food drive) was incredibly powerful. With the donation, we also like to give a leaf behind as well and make sure we could make an impact beyond a one-off event."
In addition to the food drive, the NFL made another $75,000 donation to the Cleveland Public Library-Rice Branch to upgrade their tech centers and computer labs for children and families who use their resources after school for homework and other programs. Pro Football Hall of Famer Will Shields and Kevin Dyson, who took part in two of the NFL's most historic plays in "The Music City Miracle" and "The Tackle," were on site with league representatives to tour the library and interact with families.
"It was a really cool whole thing to be a part of and know that we're going to basically refurbish it with upgraded technology and a private space so families can use it to have the connections they need to," Isaacson said.
All the activities carried out over the course of the week will leave a long-term impact on the Cleveland community, which wouldn't have had the same level of platform and resources to complete such activities had it not been for the grand stage of the NFL Draft.
"As we're looking to recover from a pandemic, I think it was more important than ever that we really focused on the Cleveland Community and make an impact on specific areas," Isaacson said. "I felt like we accomplished that, and I hope it will be felt in the communities in Cleveland and surrounding Cleveland for a while now."