Ben Wieder was listening.
Wieder served on the board of the Pinellas Education Foundation, in this county just outside Tampa. He’d recently devoured Brady’s controversial fitness book, which lays out the NFL superstar’s approach to movement, muscle work, hydration, nutrition and mental fitness. Wieder gathered with local officials and pitched the TB12 Foundation, the charitable arm of the company founded by Brady and body coach Alex Guerrero, about adapting it for schools. “If anyone could bring this concept to life, it’s us,” he recalled thinking.
Now, in a first-in-the-nation effort, 5,000 students on Florida’s west coast are learning the principles that Brady extols as essential to muscle recovery, injury prevention and improved performance. They have picked up words like “pliability,” used vibrating foam rollers and spheres to loosen up and assess each other as they lower their bodies into squats and planks.
“The roller is my favorite, because it helps a lot,” said Antoine James, an eighth-grader who is on the volleyball team at Pinellas Park Middle School and plays football outside of school.
Supporters say the program in 94,000-student Pinellas County Schools gets kids excited about fitness, and they believe the project will set off similar efforts in Florida schools and far beyond. Already, dozens of other school districts have called Pinellas, which includes St. Petersburg and Clearwater, with questions. The project is a 10-school pilot, supported by more than $30,000 in donated gear from the TB12 Foundation, which views the arrangement as a long-term partnership and will consider what “a full rollout” might require after the trial.
“We’re introducing kids to concepts they haven’t thought of before and tools they haven’t used before,” said Stacy Baier, chief executive officer of the education foundation. In Pinellas alone, she said, “there are a lot more schools waiting in the wings to get it.”
But Brady’s system is not without its doubters in the scientific community.
When he published his book in 2017 laying out his TB12 program, skeptics questioned the science behind some of his claims and the program’s obvious connection to product sales. The TB12 website now sells supplements, protein powder, vibrating spheres and foam rollers, and branded hoodies, T-shirts and hats.
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Reviewers knocked Brady for saying he doesn’t get sunburns anymore because he drinks so much water, a claim that was widely dismissed. They also questioned whether what worked for an elite athlete could be as helpful to amateurs.
The New York Times called Brady’s book “short on science,” casting doubt on the concept of pliability and his disregard for the nightshade foods, including tomatoes, strawberries, eggplant and potatoes. “Mr. Brady does not explain or justify these dietary choices in this book,” the review said. “For that, we need to consult the separate TB12 Nutrition Manual (available for $200 at tb12store.com).”
Brady stood by his TB12 method amid the criticism, saying that he knows his own experience and is sharing it. Brady’s representatives did not provide comment this week.
More recently, Brady announced a new TB12 supplement called “Protect” — to support the immune system — a couple of months into the pandemic, angering critics who accused him of taking advantage of fear about the coronavirus. The product marketing did not mention the pandemic, but the TB12sports Instagram account said, “It’s more important than ever to give your body everything it needs to help support your #immune system.”
Others have also raised questions about Guerrero, his body coach and close friend, whom he met in 2004.
Guerrero was investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for allegedly promoting an herbal supplement to prevent, treat and cure cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. In an infomercial cited by the FTC, Guerrero was cast as a doctor. According to a 2005 settlement, Guerrero agreed not to make false or unsubstantiated claims about food, drugs or supplements, and not to misrepresent himself as a doctor. He was fined $65,000 and agreed to other conditions.
The FTC investigated Guerrero again years later for a drink called NeuroSafe, promoted as a way to help prevent and quicken recovery from concussions. The FTC decided not to take enforcement action because sales were limited, marketing was stopped and Guerrero agreed to give refunds to consumers, according to an FTC letter to Guerrero’s attorney in 2012. TB12 representatives did not provide comment from Guerrero on the FTC actions or respond two questions from a reporter.
In the podcast last year, Brady was unflinching about the fitness method created with Guerrero. “I have zero doubt — zero — that 20 years from now every single professional sports team, every single college, university, everybody, will be talking about pliability and the impact it has on people’s performance over an hour,” he said. “It is absolutely 100 percent certain that this is the key to longevity for athletes — and not just for athletes but for anyone who wants to live an active life.” The challenge is educating people, he said.
In many aspects, his program also has a lot in common with other wellness practices: movement, healthy food choices, high levels of hydration, sound sleep habits and cognitive fitness. And Brady himself is an inspiration: a seven-time Super Bowl champion, still on the field — and mostly winning — at 45 years old.
Educators in Pinellas County worked throughout their summer to revise the curriculum for the two courses that are now blended with TB12 — a one-semester required PE course for eighth-graders and a full-year state-required PE class for high school students, said Ashley Grimes, the Pinellas County educator who led that review. TB12 body coaches trained educators who were teaching the new curriculum, which does not advance the contested health claims. The school system did not pay for TB12’s gear or efforts.
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At Pinellas Park Middle School, Joshua Stroman, 13, liked what he was learning. He defined pliability as “a way of flexibility” and something that “softens your muscles.” He said he thinks it will “help my knees not go bad,” which is important to his football game. He wants to play in the NFL.
An important element of the curriculum is that students set goals and evaluate their progress, Grimes said. “This is exciting because we’re moving physical education to where it needs to go, to more student ownership and student direction,” she said.
And the Brady connection goes a long way: “The kids are automatically more interested,” said teacher Tiffany Williams.
Mike Fantigrassi, of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), said TB12 has positive features, including Brady’s appeal, the accessibility of resistance bands, and its focus on movement quality, core and balance. But the method is not based in research, he said, and appears to omit or severely restrict traditional weight training. “I am concerned that there are things that aren’t rooted in science that are being taught in schools,” he said.
But some argue that engaging kids in physical activity, health and wellness is foremost. Malachy McHugh, director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said debating the science behind TB12 is much less important. “If it’s more attractive to prospective participants and doesn’t do any harm, that’s a great starting point,” McHugh said. “I suspect kids will be more inclined to do the training program created by Tom Brady than to attend a calisthenics class with Mr. or Mrs. Smith.”
Michelle Grenier, a professor emeritus at the University of New Hampshire who has trained PE teachers for more than 20 years, said student motivation is “key at eighth grade or the high school level.” But she and others wondered how TB12 would serve the various classrooms of public schools. Many students would not call themselves athletes, Grenier said.
“You hope the program makes clear this is a program for everybody,” she said.
Pinellas educators involved in rolling out TB12 said it is geared to all abilities. Allison Swank said she tells students that even if they are not playing sports, they can apply the principles of the program to daily life — carrying heavy backpacks, walking up stairs and bleachers.
The reimagined PE classes were designed using TB12 materials as a guideline while still adhering to state education standards. The revisions include more student ownership of learning and tie pliability into traditional units on sports including soccer and basketball, said Grimes, who led the curriculum change and is the district’s supervisor for health and PE
TB12 content is merged into learning about nutrition, hydration, functional strength and conditioning, mental fitness and rest and recovery, she said. When it comes to nutrition, classes might address that wheat bread is healthier than white, or that a sweet potato is more nutritious than a white potato. “At no time during the process do we dictate to students,” Grimes said. “We don’t say, ‘You can’t eat a tomato.’ “
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As for Brady’s famously strict eating plan, that is not foisted on anyone, said Bryan Hart, a head body coach with TB12. (When Brady’s book was published, his diet included fresh organic fruits and vegetables; protein smoothies; wild fish; free-range hormone-free meat; and whole grains. Snacks included TB12 protein bars, hummus and guacamole. He sometimes had a cup of bone broth with dinner and limited alcohol, dairy, gluten, white sugar, white flour and processed sweets. He was a fan of avocado ice cream — without the dairy.) “We’ll guide people towards what food groups and types of food are going to be beneficial for them, and then what we know is going to increase inflammation or decrease performance, Hart said.
There are no plans for expansion beyond Pinellas at this time, said Lisa Borges, executive director of the foundation.
But TB12 is a for-profit company — selling vibrating foam rollers for $160 each — and some wonder about the implications if it becomes embedded in school systems.
“I think it’s a fair question, to look at the optics and consider that this is the branding of an individual and it does tie to a for-profit company,” said Paul Wright, a professor of kinesiology and physical education at Northern Illinois University and chair of the Research Council of the Society of Health and Physical Educators (SHAPE America).
McHugh said his only misgiving would be if the primary motivation by TB12 is to “create revenue streams for the company, as opposed to getting kids more engaged in physical education.” Those involved said the effort is not about profit.
“I know that’s not the reason they’re doing it,” said Wieder, the education foundation board member. “Could there be some kids down the line who could become paying customers? Sure.” But Brady has often said he wished he had known the TB12 method when he was young, Wieder said — and so he wants to provide it to others.
At TB12, Hart, the head body coach, said that what it gets out of the partnership is “the overall success of the students in their health and wellness. Those kids are learning about our method and benefiting from it, and that’s all we want.”