CREDIT: Charlie Posner/ThinkProgress
MADISON, Wisconsin — On homecoming week here at the University of Wisconsin, a local football star had campus celebrating. But the crowd of more than 2,000 students gathered at Memorial Union hall had nothing to do with Wisconsin’s looming Big Ten battle with Northwestern. Instead, the crowd came for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who was here to talk about Congo.
Congo? Yes, Congo.
Rodgers came to Madison to promote the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative alongside the Enough Project and the Raise Hope For Congo Campaign, both of which are raising awareness about war in Congo and its connection to Americans. One of the campaign’s main targets is the minerals that are mined from the country and used to produce technology products like cell phones, computers, and televisions. Those minerals don’t just go into Americans’ favorite products. Their sale also finance a decades-long Congolese war in which rape and genocide are weapons and children are often soldiers.
Wisconsin is one of 150 college campuses that has signed on to the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative, which urges colleges and universities to avoid using products containing conflict minerals and to pressure businesses to invest in conflict-free minerals in Congo. Student leaders here are pushing the school’s administration to make it the 16th school to officially adopt a resolution making the campus conflict-free.
Now they have the help of one of America’s most famous football players, an NFL Most Valuable Player and Super Bowl-winning quarterback, who, having solidified his place in both Green Bay and the NFL, is looking for a way to make a difference in the world around him.
“I’ve been given a platform based on the success that we’ve had as a team and that I’ve had individually,” Rodgers told ThinkProgress after the event here Monday night. “What am I going to do? I have a voice, I have an opportunity to tell people what I care about. And I care about this deeply, I care about making an impact in this world.”
In an age where athletes are loath to speak out and risk alienating any of their fans, how did an NFL quarterback with a mega-million-dollar contract end up on this stage in Madison, using words like “movement” and “activism” and “change”? And how did that quarterback end up choosing Congo as his cause? For Rodgers, it all starts at the Super Bowl.
Rodgers was “on top of the world” on the first weekend of February 2011. The man who had gone from junior college nobody to top college quarterback, to NFL backup, to superstar quarterback had just led the Packers to victory in Super Bowl XLV.
And yet sitting on the bus after that win in Dallas, something felt empty.
Rodgers sat there wondering whether this was it, filled with a yearning to make sure it wasn’t. He started looking for ways to help — he was already doing work with cancer programs — but he never quite found it, a cause that would bring him to a place like this, in front of a crowd like this, to wake them up to an issue that was new to them.
CREDIT: Charlie Posner/ThinkProgress
A year later, Rodgers was back. The Packers had fallen short of the Super Bowl, but he had put together his best individual season yet. He won the league’s MVP award, and shortly after, his drive for activism flourished again, this time through another chat with his friend Emmanuelle Chriqui, the actress best known for her role in Entourage who has been working on Congolese issues for five years.
“We’d always had super interesting conversations and he was always super-intrigued by what I was doing, so I would fill him in, and fill him in and fill him in,” Chriqui said. “And we always said that when the timing was right, we’d do something.”
The timing, though, just never seemed right.
Then it happened again. Rodgers was out to lunch after a training camp practice this summer when Andy Mulumba, the Packers’ rookie linebacker from Eastern Michigan University, saw his country on the back of the t-shirt Rodgers was wearing. Mulumba, who is Congolese , had never talked to Rodgers “for more than a minute,” he said, but now he had to ask. And what he heard was a message of change for Congo.
“I never imagined Aaron Rodgers caring about such a cause like caring for Congo. So when I saw my country on that shirt he was wearing, I was amazed,” Mulumba said. “He told me about Raise Hope For Congo and I was inspired by it. Aaron Rodgers was doing something for my country, why wouldn’t I do something about it?”
These conversations all led to this Monday night in Madison, where Rodgers and Mulumba and Chriqui danced on stage and told students that they too could make a difference, even from half a world away.
“Everything is falling into place that is reminding me that this was meant to be,” Rodgers said.
Raise Hope For Congo and the Conflict-Free Campus Initiative have already sparked changes. Tech companies have made progress on their use of conflict minerals, though no American tech company can yet be classified as conflict-free. But Rodgers is here, in Madison, on a perfect October evening in the middle of his football season, because college campuses are the epicenter of the expanding movement.
“The tech companies aren’t going to listen until we get a loud voice, and we feel like that voice is coming from college campuses,” Rodgers said. “There’s 150 campuses that have signed up to have chapters, but there’s only 15 that have signed the resolution. We obviously need more than 15.”
You can make a difference, Rodgers told the students, and they don’t need to travel to Congo, as Rodgers will do sometime after football season ends (“after New York in February,” he said on stage, referring to Super Bowl XLVIII and drawing raucous cheers from a rabidly partisan Packers crowd).
“College is an important time in your life. You really have an opportunity to formulate your own opinions, to test the things you’ve been told, to learn about the society you live in, to learn about new cultures,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to formulate your own opinions about how you view the world and how you want to affect the world. I wish I had the confidence to do more of that when I was in college. And hopefully some of that came off in my speech, that this is a great thing and not a huge thing that they can accomplish. This is a tangible item we use every day. Every time you use that phone, think about what you can do to help those people.”
College students may the first target, but the hope among activists like Chriqui is that Rodgers will add a new dimension of awareness to the cause.
So now there’s Aaron Rodgers, tossing a football more efficiently than any quarterback ever has, on your TV screen this Sunday. But in addition to making big plays, Rodgers is trying to make sure that you can’t look at that TV screen or the cell phone that’s refreshing your fantasy football scores every 10 seconds the same way again, because now you know where the materials they’re made of came from, and what they financed. He wants you to remember that the same device that’s as much a part of your afternoon as beer and wings also contributes to a war that produces rapes, child soldiers, and genocide.
And now you might. At least that’s what can happen to an already-growing movement when an athlete like Rodgers signs up.
“Massive,” Chriqui said of Rodgers’ potential impact on the movement. “That’s exactly why it’s so cool to have this. We’re tapping into a whole other demographic that we wouldn’t otherwise. To access the sports world and the audience that serves? Wow. We can touch people we’d never dreamed of.”