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Saturday, March 2, 2024

Welfare Scandal Hasn’t Shaken Support for Brett Favre at Southern Miss

  • Favre remains a highly popular figure at his alma mater as brands and media companies have distanced themselves.
  • Federal welfare funds primarily financed the construction of a Southern Miss volleyball arena.
USM Favre
A.J. Perez/FOS

HATTIESBURG, Miss. — A hungover Brett Favre’s legend began here in September 1987. 

Favre, a freshman buried on the depth chart on the verge of getting redshirted, was thrust into the game against Tulane in the second half. Favre shook off the night of drinking to lead the University of Southern Mississippi to a 31-24 victory, the first highlight of his collegiate years that saw the Golden Eagles upset Alabama, Auburn, and Florida State before his Hall of Fame NFL career. 

“His mentality, there’s never a play he could not make,” said Rick Graham, a longtime season ticket holder who attended that game. “I think that’s really all about his competitive nature. People believed that he was going to make that play, whether he did or not. Yeah. And it carried people with him. He was always a competitor.”

Favre remains entangled in the Mississippi welfare scandal, something that led to nearly all of his sponsorship and media deals being placed on hold last year. He remains a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the Mississippi Department of Human Services as the state seeks to recover millions in misappropriated federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds. 

Text messages in that lawsuit showed Favre’s efforts to secure $5 million of those funds for a volleyball arena, known as the Wellness Center, that is a couple blocks away from M.M. Roberts Stadium where his alma mater defeated University of Louisiana Monroe, 24-7, on Saturday. 

While Favre’s image has taken a hit in many quarters as a result of the welfare scandal, the fans interviewed by Front Office Sports remain staunch Favre fans. 

“Hero,” said Southern Miss alum David Ham when asked how Favre would be greeted if he walked into the tailgate area. “He’s done many, many things for Southern Miss over the years since he retired. He’s a target of publicity by Shad White.”

Shad White is the Mississippi State Auditor, whose investigation that began in 2019 unearthed the scandal that snowballed in the years since to lead to indictments of several of those involved with the illegal distribution of TANF funds. More than $77 million of TANF funds were misspent, and the state has recovered only a fraction of that amount. 

“My office just tells the truth about where taxpayer money went,” White said in a statement to FOS. “That’s it. I’m not going to sugarcoat the truth, even if the money went to someone famous, even if it makes some people angry.”

Favre has denied wrongdoing, and the authorities have not criminally charged him.

Perched in front of a flat-screen TV watching the Ole Miss-Texas A&M game before the Southern Miss game, longtime season ticketholder Phillip Carlisle said Favre would be greeted here like before the welfare scandal. 

“I don’t think it’s the first time that he’s kind of been under fire for different things,” Carlisle said. “I think that his intent was something really good and viable for Southern Miss. He’s been asked at other times to help raise money, and I think that’s what he was doing.

“I don’t think Brett had a lot of the information that was gonna bring it to the situation that it has. He’s wanted to leave Southern Miss again better than he found it.”

The Southern Miss Athletic Foundation, like Favre, is among the more than 40 defendants in the MDHS lawsuit because the Wellness Center was built mainly with TANF funds, which are barred from being used for construction. 

Graham, who noted he’s close with the Favre family, also questioned Favre’s culpability. 

“I don’t really think Brett did anything intentionally that would have been illegal,” Graham said. “His intent was always to help the university.”

Standing in the shadow of the Wellness Center, even the parent of a University of Louisiana Monroe player took up for Favre. 

“I know celebrities are targeted,” Doug Wells said. “It happens when people are in the spotlight. I have always been a fan of Brett Favre.  I might not be a Southern Miss fan today, but I’m a Brett Favre fan still.”

While nobody interviewed by FOS on Saturday voiced any criticisms of Favre, that doesn’t mean that view is universal in the Pine Belt.

Brandon Presley, the Democrat running for Mississippi governor, held a campaign stop on the USM campus on Thursday, where he again made government corruption — and Favre — a talking point. 

“I told them the slogan of this campaign ought to be, ‘Ain’t Scared,’” Presley told FOS on Thursday. “I make the same points in Hattiesburg and everywhere else. Folks in Hattiesburg are just as mad about it as anybody else in the state. They realize how wrong all of this stuff is.”

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