In the last few days, Jeff Pearlman, author of Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, told people that they shouldn’t read his book.
Pearlman clarified that he felt fine about the book as a product, and that he felt like he did his due diligence in writing about Favre’s drug abuse, his dismal treatment of women and philandering, and his other deeply unsavory characteristics. Pearlman excels at this kind of work, on digging up the gossip that gets buried in the present but festers and exposes itself in the future. He just thought that it wasn’t worth anyone’s time to keep thinking about this dude—that he was a bad guy and that even a critical sports-writing text on the man gives him too much credit.
Pearlman is being too hard on himself, but I get the impulse. Sportswriting is inevitably tinged with sycophancy, and even a guy who has worked against the impulse in his work knows that, at the end of the day, you can’t write about Favre’s career without going into the heroic stuff he did to win in the playoffs, his cannon for an arm, and captivating on-field presence. But in reading the beginning of Gunslinger, I learned a lot about where Brett Favre comes from. I’ve read a lot of books about athletes, and Favre’s dad might be the most messed-up sports dad I’ve ever read about. He beat the crap out of his kids, ran a retrograde football offense seemingly out of pure ideology, dragooned all of his sons into being quarterbacks, coached them in high school, and then insisted that they never throw, even if they could reliably throw a football fifty yards downfield. What the hell? Did he just want to prove that, no matter how good young Favre got at something, he would always be there with his hand on the lever? Some people are truly horrible at raising children, you see, and when you’re bad enough, your child turns out like Brett Favre.
For a story with Brett Favre at its core, this Mississippi State welfare fund robbery scheme is quite complicated. Basically, the federal government has this program called “Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.” Once, the money that went to TANF was distributed in checks that went to needy families—also known as welfare. A certain kind of person hated welfare, because it was money given to poor, desperate people to help their families that they didn’t earn through work. In 1996, Bill Clinton spearheaded an effort to eliminate federal welfare checks because there was never a rightward turn that Slick Willy wasn’t willing to take for convenience’s sake.
Instead of giving that money directly to poor people, where it could be spent on groceries or rent, TANF issues the money to state governments and expects them to earmark the dollars as assistance to the poor in some way or another. More conservative states, who find the very idea of welfare offensive, will often issue this money as grants to nonprofit organizations that help the poor. Under former Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, this fund became a gigantic pile of money for any rich person in the state to draw on.
In fairness to Favre, he wasn't the only one to allegedly indulge in the abuse of funds earmarked for the poorest people in the poorest state in the union. A lot of are accused of doing so, including Ted DiBiase, pro wrestling’s “Million Dollar Man,” and flameout running back Marcus Dupree. But Favre, who made $140 million in salary during his Hall of Fame NFL career, and tens of millions more as a spokesman for Wrangler and others, allegedly took a lot of money—around $8 million—got it sent to his his foundation, Favre4Hope, which ostensibly provides aid to poor families in Mississippi and Wisconsin, and funneled it into unrelated ventures, including a new $5 million facility for his daughter’s college volleyball team, and a small round of investment for a biotech company he’d sunk money into. (Favre did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
Favre has not been charged with anything and denies any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, he also sent the following text messages (via Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that’s done most of the pertinent reporting on this story):
Anyway, a few years back, a lawyer and a former U.S. District Attorney named Brad Pigott, working on behalf of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, sniffed this out and began pursuing the misused funds. When the Mississippi state government, now operating under the watchful eye of Tate Reeves, found out, they fired Pigott under suspicious circumstances.
But let’s get back to Favre, who is alleged to have stolen $5 million from the poorest people in the poorest state in the union. I think anyone who knows about Favre was not too surprised by all this.
During his time in the NFL, Favre was regarded by the media as a kind of feral animal-John Wayne hybrid. He was the Gunslinger—a sloppy quarterback with a big-ass arm who aired it out week after week and never took days off (he played in 297 consecutive regular season NFL games, and 321 if you include playoff performances). He also threw 336 interceptions—the most all time, and 59 more than the next person on the list, George Blanda.
Favre’s on-field recklessness was indicative of his whole frickin’ life while he was in the NFL. He drank too much, fucked around, picked up an addiction to Vicodin. Probably hard not to if you’re willing to do literally anything to keep a ridiculous ironman streak going, to be fair. Even if he didn’t get his bell rung a thousand times, like he claims, he certainly often played concussed during a time when the NFL regarded the practice as standard operating procedure.
But people didn’t care about any of that back then. Remember, this was before the internet let us air out every athlete in the world, and Favre’s recklessness was seen as charming, his screw-ups the product of a mindset that was inseparable from what made him great. As more system-oriented quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady came up in the league, an in-decline Favre transformed into mythical figure among those who couldn’t let go of their John Wayne-as-athlete fantasy.
Eventually, though, time came to embarrass Brett Favre. First, there was Aaron Rodgers, his successor in Green Bay. As it grew clear that Rodgers was the future of the franchise, Favre got publicly insecure, even a little touchy. He would toy around with retirement, leaking it to friendly reporters and taking it back in perpetuity, until 2008, when he announced he would leave the NFL… right up until the New York Jets, America’s finest football team, gave him a call and lured him back to the game.
In New York, Favre finally lost track of his own myth. In 2008, he sent a series of lewd text messages to Jenn Sterger, a sideline reporter who worked for the Jets organization. Favre contacted Sterger first over Myspace, got her number, and began harassing her with thirsty voicemails and messages, despite the fact, Sterger claims, that they never even met in person. She claimed she didn’t complain because she didn’t want to lose her job with the Jets.
The story only leaked in 2010 because she told Deadspin reporter A.J. Daulerio anecdotally, in passing, and he opted to violate her confidence and write about it anyway. (What happened to Daulerio afterward is its own strange saga.) In this flurry of creepy texts, somewhere, Favre sent Sterger an unsolicited picture of his penis, which also got leaked—perhaps. The NFL investigated it and didn’t come to any solid conclusions, somehow, and then fined Favre a grand total of $50,000 for not cooperating with the investigation. He didn’t miss a game.
In the wake of all this becoming public, two massage therapists who worked for the Jets at the time, Christina Scavo and Shannon O’Toole, also accused Favre of sending them lewd text messages. Scavo’s husband confronted Favre, demanding an apology on behalf of his wife. Favre declined. After they told the Jets about all this, the team’s massage therapist coordinator told O’Toole that she would “never work for the Jets again,” and, as it turns out, she was right, because the team declined to renew their contracts after the season.
But even after scandal and time wore away at his public image, the Favre energy was still there. Up until 2017, people kept asking him if the Gunslinger would ride again. So badly did some people want to believe in the myth that they kept intoning it long after Favre’s time had ended.
Stephen A. Smith, recently seen in these pages in a less flattering light, was talking about Favre’s alleged Mississippi robbery, wondering aloud if a Black athlete would receive the same legal deference that Favre appears to have been granted thus far. I blanche at this analogy—not because it’s wrong, but because it doesn’t go far enough. If Brett Favre weren’t white, weren’t the kind of player people could affix their Southern cowboy fantasies to, he wouldn’t have even been an NFL quarterback in the first place. They would have, at best, said he had a big arm and no control, and tried to slot him in at small safety. I mean, look at the shit Randy Moss caught for doing a silly skit while Favre sat on the sidelines:
I can’t even imagine the hell Moss would have caught if he did even one-tenth of the fuck-ups Favre has in his life and career.