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Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins does things his way despite critics

Poster board news conference and op-ed piece show he’s focused on issues that sparked protests during anthem

PHILADELPHIA — To some civil rights activists, it was a significant moment. One of those you’ll-always-remember-where-you-were surprises. But people close to Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who have locked arms with him along his journey in the social justice movement, will tell you that he merely did what he believed was necessary without concern for how others may view him. It’s the only way he knows.

Amid the furor stoked by President Donald Trump, who made erroneous claims about the Eagles after withdrawing an invitation to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl victory at the White House, Jenkins delivered a powerful message through the use of poster board. And in the process, he refocused the conversation on racial injustice and police brutality, the issues that have prompted demonstrations throughout the NFL the past two seasons.

Despite what even Jenkins’ critics acknowledge is his tireless work on behalf of the disadvantaged, especially with regard to criminal justice reform, he remains a polarizing figure. Many African-Americans were put off by his willingness, as co-leader of the Players Coalition, the group that negotiated with the NFL on behalf of protesting players, to sit down with team owners. Some thought the coalition shouldn’t have engaged with the owners until unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who as a member of the San Francisco 49ers lit the fuse on demonstrations by first sitting and then kneeling during the anthem before the 2016 season, rejoined the league. Jenkins was further scrutinized for his stewardship of the coalition after owners recently modified the league’s national anthem policy to end demonstrations along the sidelines, resulting in the impression that the nearly $90 million the coalition received to fund social justice causes was a payoff to buy the players’ silence.

Undeterred, Jenkins hasn’t eased off the accelerator.

On Thursday, he and members of the Players Coalition wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times in response to Trump’s request for players to send him recommendations for pardons.

The op-ed piece included this paragraph: “But a handful of pardons will not address the sort of systemic injustice that NFL players have been protesting. These are problems that our government has created, many of which occur at the local level. If President Trump thinks he can end these injustices if we deliver him a few names, he hasn’t been listening to us.”

Michael Bennett, an Eagles Pro Bowl defensive end and one of the league’s most outspoken players on matters of race, understands Jenkins’ thinking.

“Obviously, Malcolm has put himself out there,” Bennett said. “And anytime you take criticism for something you believe in, it’s always hard. But Malcolm … always does what he needs to do.”

One of Jenkins’ most impactful acts occurred without his even uttering a word.

Two days after Trump nixed the White House visit (reportedly the president was offended that the Eagles’ traveling party would number fewer than 10 people), Jenkins, during the Eagles’ media availability after practice at the team training complex here, stood at his dressing stall and held up handwritten signs in front of perplexed reporters and TV cameramen. As Jenkins faced a barrage of questions about Trump’s comments, he responded to each with a new sign, keeping his mouth closed but nonetheless commenting loudly. The lesson, which was clearly directed at the vast swath of the public that continues to incorrectly claim player protests during the national anthem disrespect the U.S. military and police, began with a sign that read, “You Aren’t Listening.” The remaining signs listed facts about what’s occurring in the criminal justice system and statistics about police-involved shootings and praised the work of players, whom Jenkins listed as “True Patriots” on one poster board, in trying to make a positive difference with both their checkbooks and time — the same players Trump has repeatedly attacked in speeches and tweetstorms as being unpatriotic.

Message received, said activist Stephen A. Green.

The president of The People’s Consortium, a civil rights group committed to nonviolent change, Green said Jenkins’ approach was well-timed.

“What got me was that Malcolm Jenkins did something that was so strategic,” said Green, one of the lead organizers of a rally in August 2017 in New York City to support Kaepernick. “With everything the president was saying and other people were saying, with so much out there that was false about the movement, more words, even truthful words, often just gets lost in all the noise. Instead of adding more talk, he used his platform to redirect people, and in a totally unexpected way.

“He redirected the conversation to the truth about why players and the rest of us are out here doing what we do. In each one of those signs, he was not just telling people about the mission of the movement — he was showing them. You saw names, numbers and facts about the issues facing black and brown bodies on a daily basis out here. Each one of those signs was really about systemic oppression and what some people are doing to fight it. People who don’t care about these issues have tried to take that message and change it. Those signs got us back to what we really need to be talking about.”

Activists often complain that many in the media have performed poorly in explaining what the players are striving to accomplish, “which is why I thought it [Jenkins’ display] was a brilliant and clear strategy that forced folks to actually have to either show or print exactly what was being shown,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a civil rights organization that has assisted players (but not the Coalition) in mapping out an agenda. “What he did was to make sure that the message would not be put in context and would not be paraphrased but shown without comment in its entirety. It was well-done and accomplished a lot without saying anything.”

In a video interview with Tim McManus of ESPN.com, Jenkins explained that he’s “tired of the narrative being about the anthem, about the White House or whatever. The issues are the issues. And the reason that we’re doing any of this is because we have these huge disparities in our criminal justice system. We have this issue of mass incarceration. We have issues of police brutality [and] our children and access to education, and economic advancement is nonexistent in communities of color.

“And these things are systemic. There are ways that we can change them. And for me, I feel like this is the time to do that. And so that message can’t continue to be ignored. And that’s what I think has been happening up until this point. So we just have to continue to stay on topic and continue to push the issues. And not this narrative of who’s right and who’s wrong, but what are the reasons why players are even so passionate about this.”

Few athletes have been as active in the movement as Jenkins.

Along with retired wide receiver Anquan Boldin, co-leader of the coalition, Jenkins has lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill about community-police relations. He has pushed for bail reform. Jenkins led the Eagles in rallying around formerly incarcerated rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native free on bail while appealing a decade-old drug and gun conviction, whose situation typifies problems with sentencing guidelines, advocates say.

But a split in the coalition in November 2017 resulted in attacks on both Jenkins’ leadership and character by other NFL players. Citing issues with Jenkins’ handling of negotiations and their dissatisfaction with the league’s financial offer, former San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid, New York Giants safety Michael Thomas, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills and Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung broke away from the coalition. Reid delivered the most blistering criticism, telling The Undefeated that “I won’t accuse Malcolm of directly lying to me, because I don’t think he’s that type of guy. But I will say he’s misled us. And, shoot, if that’s what lying is, then that’s what it is.”

Repeatedly during the season, Eagles defensive end Chris Long said the criticism of his friend and teammate was unfair. For Long, nothing has changed.

“I know how much time Malcolm has put into these issues, and I know that he does what he does for the right reasons, so I’m not listening to anyone who says his integrity isn’t there,” said Long, the first white player to support black players who protested during “The Star-Spangled Banner” last season. “Malcolm is an honest dude who does what he does because he wants to help people. That’s truth. And that’s what matters to me.”

Defensive end Bennett, who was traded from the Seattle Seahawks to the Eagles in March, was frustrated by the split in the coalition. Bennett would have preferred that the problems remain in the family, but he has never questioned Jenkins’ motives.

“Everybody deserves dignity, everybody deserves rights. That’s what Malcolm wants to show with everything that he puts out,” Bennett said. “Sometimes the narrative gets changed, but, obviously, it’s about the people. It’s always been about the people.

“It’s about women’s issues. It’s about gender issues. It’s about racial issues. It’s all about those different issues that we can come together [around] as citizens and find out how we can collaborate together and make a better world.”

Fact is, though, it’s easy to argue that the league’s handling of its anthem policy put the Coalition in a difficult position. Although there’s no explicit quid pro quo in the coalition’s deal with owners that players will no longer demonstrate in exchange for money to fund programs considered important to black and brown communities, the events leading to the changes cast the coalition’s deal in an unfavorable light, said political strategist and CNN commentator Symone D. Sanders.

“Malcom Jenkins set out to strike a good, solid deal, the best deal he thought he could get. And that’s in fact what he ended up with,” said Sanders, who has met frequently with high-ranking league officials about social justice issues. “The problem is, I think he got the short end of the negotiating stick. The NFL office kind of outwitted the Players Coalition in the sense that they gave them these funds, which was seemingly like a Band-Aid to the issue.

“But the root cause was never addressed. And the owners still passed a [rule] that requires players to stand or stay in the locker room [during the anthem]. … And it left the players who negotiated in good faith with the NFL looking like they had mud on their face. So at the end of the day, they got got. We have to, in fact, acknowledge that. At the end of the day, the Players Coalition set out in good faith to negotiate with a high bar and a high brow, but they got got by the NFL.”

On the other hand, if the coalition makes good use of the funds, the organization could have a formidable impact in improving the lives of many. That’s why Jenkins and Boldin have maintained that, without having the ability to require an NFL team to sign Kaepernick, they accepted the NFL’s financial assistance because it would help people in their communities.

Robinson of Color of Change gets it.

“Activism and these decisions we make,” Robinson said, “are not about popularity contests.”

Clearly, Jenkins has a similar outlook. He does things his way and accepts whatever comes because of it. That won’t necessarily make him popular, but it does make him authentic, which is what anyone who’s truly fighting for others should aspire to be.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at Andscape. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.