“The goal is not to make everyone comfortable and happy,” Jenkins said. As players, we had “to understand the noise is just part of the deal, and if you’re going to get involved, you have to be tough enough to ignore that, and eventually our words and actions will answer all the questions people have.”
By Michael Bennett
In the NFL, the 2017 season will probably be remembered more for what happened off the field rather than on it.
The coast-to-coast debate over whether players should all stand during the playing of the national anthem drowned out any discussion of X’s and O’s.
President Trump ignited a full-throated shouting match in September, when he urged owners to fire players who did not stand for the anthem. His fury turned the NFL— traditionally a unifying force — into a mosh pit of competing agendas and emotions, pitting owners, players and league officials mostly against the president, at least initially, and longtime fans against the league.
The dispute with Trump overshadowed the original intent of the protests. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first not to stand for the national anthem in 2016, did so to shine a light on police brutality and what he saw as the unfairness of the criminal justice system.
Some tarred Kaepernick and other protesting players as traitors. Others hailed them as heroes.
Amid the storm, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and about three dozen other players formed the Players Coalition and got to work on finding solutions to the problems they cared about most. During the spring and summer, and then on their days off during the season, they visited lawmakers on Capitol Hill and in statehouses, went to prisons and bail hearings, and met with activists trying to help the incarcerated get back on their feet. They wrote op-ed pieces and letters to legislators and spoke on television.
Jenkins; his Eagles teammate Chris Long; the former wide receiver Anquan Boldin; Michael Bennett and Doug Baldwin of the Seattle Seahawks; Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots; and players on every other team also lobbied their bosses, the 32 team owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell, to use the NFL’sdeep pockets to help fight these issues.
It was a delicate dance, and some owners wondered whether the league should be expanding its mission far beyond football.
“Institutionally, we are not here for a lesson in civics,” Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, said in December. “Institutions — churches, businesses — have all been slow to act. When they act, they usually overreact, and then they have to come back and back the adjustment.”
Also, while the players wanted the league to help, they did not want to be seen as asking for its permission. Some players worried that the league might co-opt their message, or demand they stop protesting in return for support. Other players felt that the league could do a lot more than it ultimately did.
Jenkins and the majority of his group were simply glad the owners and the league heard them out.
“Listening to the players, giving us a seat at the table, it was something we wanted,” Boldin said.
In fact, by the time Trump lashed out at the league, Goodell, the Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and league officials had already spent an entire day in Philly with Jenkins and other players. They met with the police commissioner and public defenders, sat in on bail hearings and heard from former prisoners about the challenges of getting back on their feet.
Jenkins said the afternoon was the group’s opportunity to explain why players had chosen to demonstrate, sacrifice their time and “put our necks out there, because these are things happening every day and happening in N.F.L. cities.”
Just days later, the league was trying to dance around the political third rail of the anthem protests and the president. The league’s sponsors and television partners were jittery. Through the fury, the Players Coalition became a way to approach the issues productively, and the league and the group had established a degree of trust.
“One of the things you come away with is, they are incredibly knowledgeable, articulate and passionate about these issues,” the Atlanta Falcons’ owner, Arthur Blank, said of the members of the Players Coalition.
In an odd way, the president may have done the Players Coalition a favor. His obsession with the anthem protests accelerated the discussion about the issues the group was trying to highlight. Those discussions were awkward for some owners, but also for the players who were being branded unpatriotic. Jenkins said the group was determined to seize the moment.
“I realized I could have a far greater impact than I ever had,” said Jenkins, a nine-year veteran.
All he needed was time, and Jenkins already had a lot on his plate. His foundation, which provides leadership and life skills to young people in underserved communities, had expanded to four states. He had also recentlyopened a high-end clothing store in Philadelphia. The baby was on the way, and the Eagles were suddenly one of the league’s top teams.
Holly Harris, the executive director of the Justice Action Network, enlisted Jenkins to write a letter of support for a program in Ohio that diverts nonviolent drug offenders from prison to community treatment programs. In no time, Jenkins, who played at Ohio State, sent a letter to legislators. Harris said the letter helped save the program.
Bill Cobb, the deputy director of the A.C.L.U. Campaign for Smart Justice, which tries to reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system, took Jenkins and other players to Graterford Prison, in Collegeville, Pa., about an hour’s drive from Philadelphia, to talk with officers and inmates, including juveniles who received life sentences. Jenkins recorded a video and wrote an op-ed column to publicize Cobb’s program. He gave Super Bowl tickets to a man who was released from the prison after serving 30 years of a life term, which he received as a 15-year-old.
Lurie is uniquely sympathetic to what the Players Coalition has been trying to achieve. Long before he bought the Eagles, he earned a doctoral degree in social policy and lectured on topics like incarceration rates. In the lobby at the Eagles’ training facility, there are large photos of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela and Jonas Salk, rather than sepia-tone images of the team’s best former players.
While he supports Jenkins and the players, Lurie told them they needed to better publicize their goals so they were not sidetracked by people accusing them of being unpatriotic, like those protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960s.
“They had to understand that the message is really important, and if the message is not being received, it hurts their ability to take action,” Lurie said.
At one point, Jenkins received criticism from those against the protests and those in favor of them. After the league and the Coalition announced their plan to support grass-roots groups, Jenkins said he would no longer raise his fist during the playing of the anthem. Critics, including some players who quit the Players Coalition, said he had cut a deal to get support from owners who wanted the protests to end.
But Jenkins said the protests had succeeded in shining a light on social injustice and the need for action, and the N.F.L. had made a commitment to help, even if it meant working under a bright and sometimes harsh light.