Op-Ed: Their causes, their impact: Player-led initiatives are a multiplying force for good

Brandon Marshall couldn't have known it at the time.

Back in October 2013, when he decided to wear lime-green cleats for Mental Health Awareness Week during a prime-time game, realizing he'd probably be fined for a uniform violation, Marshall set in motion an unstoppable force for good.

That moment sparked what would become My Cause My Cleats.

In the years after, Marshall provided a key voice behind the scenes, lobbying the NFL to give players an outlet -- a way to bring attention to the causes they care about. Things were about to change.

Marshall, who has been open about his experiences as a person diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, argued that players, if given a chance, could make an impact through self-expression. He advocated for custom cleats to be allowed during games, when viewership is highest and fans are locked in.

He wasn't alone. Devon Still, whose daughter Leah's fight against cancer galvanized the league, also championed the idea to those of us at NFL headquarters. Consider Victor Cruz, with his cleats paying tribute to 6-year-old Sandy Hook Elementary shooting victim Jack Pinto, a part of the movement, too. Prince Amukamara and Torrey Smith were also on the front lines, as well as others.

Fast-forward to 2022.

Nearly 1,100 current players are participating this season in My Cause My Cleats, which just kicked off its seventh year and will continue into Week 14. They're wearing custom-designed cleats to drive awareness and raise charitable donations for things like disease research and prevention, social justice, youth education and preventing gun violence.

That's ELEVEN-HUNDRED players -- just this season. No other NFL initiative has that level of engagement.

The excitement for this player-led program has spread across the league.

Five club owners, eight general managers and 15 head coaches are representing causes with their footwear in 2022. That's not to mention numerous other club staff, NFL legends and broadcast partners. We have clubs hosting "unboxing" events and using resources to promote the initiative -- and their players' causes -- in creative ways.

The athletes who urged us to consider this program were 100 percent right about the impact. My Cause My Cleats has raised more than $1.2 million since its launch in 2016. Better yet, all proceeds from auctioning custom game-day cleats have gone directly to charitable organizations selected by players.

It's important to note the philanthropic component also traces back to Brandon Marshall. He took it upon himself to auction the lime-green cleats that generated all that conversation in 2013, giving the funds to charity. Additionally, Marshall matched the fine he received, dollar for dollar, with a donation to his foundation.

It all goes back to the player.

And that's the whole point.

Player-driven initiatives not only work -- they can be one of the biggest drivers of good.

My Cause My Cleats isn't the only example. Inspire Change, the NFL's sweeping social justice initiative, is due to the influence of Anquan Boldin, Malcolm Jenkins, and others. They led the way, gained grassroots support and forged a coalition. Because of these athletes, more than $244 million in grants have been awarded to organizations focusing on education, economic advancement, police and community relations and criminal justice reform.

The results are undeniable: When players are empowered to conceive, advocate for and lead their own initiatives, big things happen. When players' ideas are embraced by NFL clubs, take notice.

The result is powerful -- a multiplier of good so exponential, so incalculable, that it'd break even the biggest scoreboard.

This is a blueprint that all professional sports can follow. Let's keep our ears and hearts open to our players, and then get to work multiplying their good into something even greater.

Troy Vincent Sr. is the executive vice president of football operations for the National Football League.