Irreconcilable differences: Why the Players Coalition split apart

In the end, it came down to different players protesting for different reasons with different incentives to stop

Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Feb. 2, 2018.

Josh Norman was done. On the evening of Nov. 7, in a Players Coalition group chat of nine players including Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, New York Jets offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum and Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin, the volatile Redskins cornerback sent a blunt message to 49er Eric Reid.

“Let’s just cut the BS,” Norman typed to the safety who was starting to be seen as an obstacle in talks between the NFL and the coalition on a proposed $89 million social-justice partnership. “Why are you creating chaos? Why can’t the guy [Colin Kaepernick] speak for himself? … It’s greater than one. Majority rules. You’re in or out.”

“Who are you to dictate?” Reid shot back as members watched on their phones. “Don’t try to capitalize on something [the protest movement] you never participated in.”

“If you have a real issue, problem with me, straight up, I ain’t with the BS,” Norman said. “Here’s my address.” He then offered to purchase Reid a plane ticket so they could face off.

This is not the way the chat was supposed to go. If the players could not find common ground with each other, how would they ever find it with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell? It was suggested they meet in person — Kaepernick included — to get on the same page and define a united purpose going forward. Dallas was suggested as a central location.

“I’m in. I’m in. I’m in. I’ll go. I’ll attend,” members responded, one after the other. Reid did not reply.

“Hey, we’re just waiting on a response from you, brother,” a member said to Reid after roughly 30 minutes. “Can you [and Kaepernick] make the meeting next Tuesday in Dallas? Or do you need to get back with us tomorrow?”

Why Reid wouldn’t attend the meeting is a matter of some dispute. He would tell ESPN The Magazine that he saw the invitation as an ultimatum and he wouldn’t be able to attend because of his grandmother’s funeral. But an examination of that group text shared with The Undefeated by a coalition member reveals other issues were at play that went to the heart of the coalition’s divide.

“Before I even consider attending this meeting and asking Colin to attend,” Reid replied, “are we in agreement that the agenda for this will be to discuss the logistics behind separating the coalition — which has always been focused on criminal justice reform — from a new entity in which Colin will be at the helm and the protesting players [will] move forward in communication with the NFL to address the systematic oppression of black and brown people? Then, yes, I will try to make it on Tuesday or find another day that works for all of us. If not, there’s no point in having a meeting.”

Why? That was the dominant question nearly a month later on Nov. 29, when Reid, Los Angeles Chargers offensive tackle Russell Okung, wideout Kenny Stills and safety Michael Thomas of the Miami Dolphins broke from the coalition on the cusp of a landmark agreement with the NFL. Once you get past all the issues, most notably the lack of trust and an abundance of ego, the simplest answer is irreconcilable differences. Each side had such dramatically different objectives, they should never have coalesced in the first place.

Reid & Co. were focused first on getting Kaepernick a job after the former 49ers quarterback went unsigned entering 2017, perhaps as retaliation for igniting leaguewide protests the previous year when he demonstrated against police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem. They also believed Kaepernick should lead the talks with the league since, at the core, it was his actions that brought the league to the table.

San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (35) kneels in front of teammates during the playing of the national anthem before an NFL football game between the 49ers and the Carolina Panthers in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017. ()

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

Reid did not respond to multiple requests for an interview for this story nor would he answer questions via email or text.

The majority of coalition members disagreed. While sympathetic and supportive of Kaepernick’s fight to secure employment through a grievance he filed against the league, the players still thought the focus should remain on the big picture. “He knew there could be consequences,” Norman said. “It’s not right what’s happening, but this is bigger than one person. We’re trying to help communities across this country.”

Twelve days into his tenure as the newly minted commissioner of the NFL in 2006, Goodell attended a preseason game in Oakland, California. He was less interested in the action between the Raiders and 49ers than what was being discussed in the cramped San Francisco owner’s suite. Seated next to him was University of California, Berkeley professor emeritus and longtime 49ers adviser Harry Edwards, a respected sociologist and civil activist who is widely regarded as a forefather of athlete activism.

Goodell wanted input regarding the state of the league and what major challenges might await him, particularly as it related to players. Edwards had a unique perspective as someone who has focused on the confluence of race, sports and activism and is a leading authority on social issues related to African-American athletes.

During his talk with Goodell, Edwards touched on many topics, but perhaps most prophetically, he cautioned that a cultural shift was taking place in NFL locker rooms, not simply in the sense that more African-American players were entering the league, but that increasingly they were going to be viewed as the game’s stars. Edwards warned that public imagery surrounding the product on the field was going to become more problematic if that issue wasn’t addressed. Stardom equals power. And black power shakes the status quo. Sooner or later — and in ways no one would be able to see coming — that was going to come to a head.

“I don’t think he really wrapped his mind around what that meant,” Edwards says today. “These athletes don’t leave the issues that they have in the community at the locker-room door; those come in to the locker room. … He was going to have to deal with some sociopolitical issues that were extrainstitutional that were going to come over the stadium wall.”

The sociopolitical issue Edwards had foreseen a decade earlier didn’t scale the stadium wall, it plowed through it, leaving many to wonder what would be left of the NFL when the rubble was cleared. Owners were apoplectic, sponsors were uneasy and fans on both sides of the issue were upset. Some promised to boycott the NFL until the players stood, while others pledged to boycott games until Kaepernick had a job. The passage of time only brought increased pressure.

Nearly 200,000 supporters signed a #NoKaepernickNoNFL petition in August. Then in September, President Donald Trump called on owners to “fire” any “son of a b—-” who kneeled during the anthem. And in November Papa John’s pizza founder John Schnatter criticized the league for not forcing the players to stand, adding: “We are disappointed the NFL and its leadership did not resolve this. Leadership starts at the top and this is an example of poor leadership.”

A message about police brutality and oppression had been co-opted into a discussion about respect (or the lack of) for law enforcement, then the military, then free speech, and finally patriotism. Goodell was caught in the crosshairs. He had to deal not only with an overwhelmingly conservative league culture run by team owners without a single African-American majority owner among them but with a player pool that is roughly 70 percent black. The league’s poor handling of recent high-profile crises, be it domestic-violence cases, alleged bounty and bullying incidents, or the controversial suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady also didn’t help. The commissioner needed to get this one right and no one was going to make it easy on him. In one ear, he had owners telling him to act immediately to make the protests stop; in the other he had Troy Vincent, the league’s vice president of football operations, advising him to proceed cautiously.

Vincent, who is black, played cornerback in the NFL for 15 seasons before joining the league office after a short stint with the NFL Players Association. He knew from conversations with black players how strongly many of them felt about the things taking place in their hometown communities, notably the killing of unarmed black men and women by police. The players were not looking for a fight with the league, but neither were they going to back down from one. More and more they were coming to view themselves as partners with the owners, not merely employees. Kaepernick had given them a voice without saying a word, and they intended to use it.

Shortly after Kaepernick first took a knee in August 2016, more than 100 players got together in an online chat. Many were frustrated by what was happening in society and wanted to show support for Kaepernick and his message. But how best to do it? Should they take a stand by taking a knee? Would it be more effective to raise their voices or raise their fists? Might something subtler be more powerful?

Unable to reach an agreement, Kaepernick asked that guys do nothing if they weren’t going to take a knee, fearful that the message would be diluted, bastardized or overshadowed by people focusing on the method of protest rather than the message behind it. He was right, of course, but not quite in the way he intended. Different players were demonstrating for different reasons, making it near impossible for anyone to succinctly name what was being protested. Coalition leader Anquan Boldin, while choosing not to kneel or make a public gesture, spoke out in hopes of giving a voice to the voiceless after a cousin was killed by a plainclothes police officer in 2015. Jenkins raised a fist in support of the Clean Slate Act, which would seal the criminal records of anyone with misdemeanor convictions — save violent and sex offenses — if they stay clean for 10 years, after his brother was charged with a felony for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Others wanted improved police training. And numerous others kneeled in protest of Trump’s comments.

Colin Kaepernick receives the SI Muhammad Ali Legacy Award during SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 2017 Sportsperson of the Year Show on December 5, 2017 at Barclays Center in New York City.

Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated

In February 2017, while attending the Super Bowl in Houston, Jenkins and Boldin brainstormed with other players on how to bring together all the voices speaking out for change. The two had been partnering for criminal justice reform for over a year, including a trip to Capitol Hill in November 2016 to seek support from members of Congress. The group was only five players then — Boldin, Jenkins, Andrew Hawkins, Josh McCown and Glover Quin — but more players were reaching out to see how they could get involved. During the lull between meetings at the 2017 Super Bowl, they decided the time was right to create a formal working group and trademarked the name “Players Coalition.” The number of members is fluid, with the coalition claiming 30 to 40 members, not all of them black, many of whom who asked not to be identified to keep the focus on their work.

Jenkins tried multiple times to bring Kaepernick into the group, but the former Super Bowl starter, while receptive and supportive, preferred to remain on his own. He had not spoken publicly about his situation since opting out of his 49ers contract in March 2017, two weeks before the start of the new league year. Kaepernick knew the team planned to release him if he had not opted out, and he wanted to get a jump on free agency. He quickly found there was no market despite career passing marks of 72 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, including a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio in 2016. It was too early to claim collusion by owners, so he bit his tongue, waited for his opportunity and continued putting in work in local communities, notably holding “Know Your Rights” camps across the country.

In a text message to The Undefeated, Kaepernick’s lawyer declined to make his client available for comment on this story.

Unlike Kaepernick, Boldin was not sure he wanted to continue playing after the 2016 season ended. After 14 seasons with Arizona, Baltimore, San Francisco and Detroit, during which he amassed 13,779 yards and 82 touchdowns on 1,076 receptions, he questioned whether it was time to spend more time with his wife and young sons. He also felt a powerful tug to escalate his fight for social justice following the shooting death of his cousin. Even after signing a one-year, $2.75 million deal with the Buffalo Bills on Aug. 7, he wasn’t sure he’d made the right decision. His suspicions were confirmed five days later when a car sped through a group of counterprotesters at an alt-right and white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a 32-year-old woman and injuring at least 19 others.

The event shook him. He had always been able to concentrate on football during training camp, but it now felt secondary in his life. On Aug. 19, from his dorm room at St. John Fisher College near Rochester, New York, he got on a conference call with Goodell, who was still searching for a path to end the protests and address the players’ concerns about racial and social inequities.

“I think it’s unfortunate that we have this going on right now,” Boldin said, speaking of the protests in general and the conditions that caused them in particular. “You have some coaches and some [general managers] and owners who say that protesting is not the way it should be done, and then you have owners and coaches who say, I support my guys. Saying that you support us in protest is not the type of support that we’re looking for. In actuality, that’s not support at all. It’s permission. Guys don’t need permission to protest something they feel strongly about, whether there are consequences behind that or not.”

It helped that Goodell was in a similar frame of mind. He had reached out to Edwards once again, who’d told him the league had to find a way to move from protest to progress via community-based programs. Action, not reaction, was the path forward.

“You know what?” Goodell said to Boldin. “I never looked at it that way. I never looked at it as support vs. permission. For you, what does support look like?”

That question was the genesis of what would become a multifaceted seven-year, $89 million commitment the league would make three months later toward social-justice causes important to the players. Boldin announced his retirement the next day, saying his life’s purpose was bigger than football. Three days after that, he and Jenkins got on the phone with Kaepernick in hopes of making him part of the coalition. Kaepernick was still unsigned and had been brought in for an interview only by the Seahawks, despite many less-accomplished passers having no problem finding work. This time Jenkins and Boldin believed they had something compelling to sway Kaepernick: a seat at the table with the owners. The three spoke for 45 minutes, but the call ended with nothing more than an agreement to keep talking, according to both Jenkins and Boldin.

Still more talk finally produced dividends in September when Reid and several other players who had previously declined invitations joined the coalition. This didn’t mean it was smooth sailing. The new members disagreed with founding members on everything from who should be leader to what it was looking for from the league to how much focus should be on placed on addressing Kaepernick’s unemployment.

In October alone, the players held three conference calls that ranged in length from 30 to 85 minutes. The first included Boldin, Jenkins and Mike Thomas; the second featured 11 players, among them Okung and Reid; the third included seven players and took place on the eve of the first face-to-face session with the owners. There was a sense of cautious optimism among many of the 13 players who arrived at league headquarters on Oct. 17 to meet with 11 owners, Goodell and Vincent. After nearly four hours, the session concluded not only with a commitment to continue talks, but a pledge of unconditional support from the owners that there would be no strings attached as they continued to work with the players — meaning, the owners would not demand an end to player protests in exchange for league support.

From the outside looking in, the pledge seemed to signal that a path forward was possible. But among the players, the vibe was different. Much of it had to do with Reid’s belief that Jenkins and Boldin were trying to shut Kaepernick out of the negotiations. It had become painfully clear that everyone was not on the same page when Reid tried unsuccessfully to get the players to join him in wearing black T-shirts that read “#IMWITHKAP” at the meeting with the NFL. Just a month earlier Reid had told reporters that Kaepernick “without a doubt” should be the leader of the movement. But the former 49ers star was conspicuous in his absence from any face-to-face talks.

Jenkins and several other players said the coalition invited Kaepernick to attend, however Kaepernick’s camp said he was disinvited by both the league and the NFL Players Association, something each vigorously denied. It had been left to the coalition to decide which players would participate in the feeling-out session, everyone agreed. Though it was no secret that the league was not exactly eager to engage with Kaepernick, who had filed a collusion grievance against team owners over his lack of employment. He did so without assistance from the association, choosing instead to hire attorney Mark Geragos, who has represented many high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson and Chris Brown.

Several players expressed surprise when the Kaepernick camp asserted he was not welcome at the meeting. Jenkins was even more perplexed when a Kaepernick attorney formally requested he set the record straight and admit Kaepernick was not invited. That prompted Jenkins to remove Kaepernick from the group chats, on the recommendation of his own attorney, who cautioned that Jenkins could find himself in the middle of the collusion grievance.

Reid was enraged by the move, but others supported it, notably Norman. “I told Malcolm to take him off the group chat long before he did,” Norman said. “It was toxic. He was creating so much chaos.”

According to several players, Kaepernick phoned in to the players’ conference call the day after the New York meeting and accused Jenkins of stealing his ideas (even though multiple members contend Kaepernick never submitted any ideas to the coalition or the league). Reid also claimed Jenkins was trying to be the face of a movement Kaepernick and he should own. According to multiple league sources, Vincent texted Kaepernick and/or his representative on two separate occasions, once in September and once in November, and asked for a face-to-face meeting. There was no response either time.

The call that night lasted 90 minutes, with no resolution about the developing divide between those in the Kaepernick camp and those in the Jenkins-Boldin camp. Still it was clear that Reid believed the leadership wasn’t doing enough to include Kaepernick in the talks, telling The MMQB on Oct. 29: “The way this has been established, Malcolm has been the point of contact with the NFL as it relates to these meetings. I don’t know how that came to be, but that’s what it is so far. I’ve been trying to get in touch with people from the NFL, can’t do it. Colin’s been trying to get in touch with people from the NFL, can’t do it. For some reason, they only want to talk to Malcolm. That’s not a problem, but Colin and I started this protest, and we feel we should be the point or, if not, more heavily involved in the communication.”

Reid complained repeatedly on the next conference call about a lack of transparency, openly questioning why Jenkins was having one-on-one discussions with the Goodell or Vincent. Eventually someone suggested that all future communication with the league include multiple coalition members, thus ensuring that everyone’s point of view was being represented. Everyone agreed.

But three days later, league spokesman Joe Lockhart confirmed on a national media call that Reid had attempted to arrange a mediated session for himself, Goodell and Kaepernick. Lockhart’s disclosure blindsided the Players Coalition. “Nobody knew anything about him trying to arrange the meeting,” one member said. “We got on a group text and everybody was like, ‘Dude, we just talked about this. This is what you had an issue with [as far as lack of transparency], and you do this?’ A lot of true feelings came out. Eric is laying into Malcolm, and Malcolm is continuing to give him the facts and reiterate that we’re trying to work together and you should have gone through the group.”

Norman was having none of it. That was the moment he felt compelled to challenge Reid to a fight over group text and send an offer of a plane ticket to facilitate it. “I wanted to have a conversation face to face,” Norman said a month later. “I believe in progress. I believe in the majority. I also believe in what’s right and what’s wrong, and what was right was what we were doing [for] going forward. The majority wanted to do something to help others. We were about the group and making progress, not about a few individuals. It sucks when you have a few who try to bring down the majority.”

Three weeks later, on the morning of Nov. 29, Vincent says Goodell received a text from the 225 area code, which represents southern Louisiana. He didn’t immediately recognize the number, but the message was clear: “Hey, commissioner. Just wanted to let you know that the coalition will no longer be speaking on my behalf. And I’ll be following up with you separately to talk about these issues.”

The message was from Reid, a Louisiana native. He was out. He would later claim that he could not go forward after Jenkins sent him a text asking if he and Thomas would end their protests if the league contributed money to their causes. Jenkins confirmed the text to The Undefeated but said it was in response to a call he, Reid, Thomas and Boldin had had days earlier with four NFL executives: Vincent, Goodell, chief operating officer Tod Leiweke and chief financial officer Joe Siclare. Vincent also confirmed that he specifically asked each player what more the league could do to support the players or address their concerns, with an implicit understanding that the endgame was to make the players comfortable enough that they’d no longer feel the need to demonstrate.

Reid asked if player contributions on the local level could go to their hometowns instead of the cities in which they played. Jenkins asked if the contributions could come from the players’ foundations instead of from their own pockets. Vincent then asked each player if he was prepared to move forward if those issues were addressed. Each of them said they believed so. The next day Vincent drew up what he thought would be the final proposal and sent it to Jenkins, who waited until after the weekend’s games to text Reid and others to confirm what had previously been said on the call — that they would be comfortable moving forward under the previously stated conditions.

That confirmation never came. Days later, Reid walked out the coalition door. Thomas, Stills and Okung soon followed, with Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett left teetering between the two sides.

Goodell fluctuated between exasperation and anger at the split, according to those who spoke to him. Vincent suggested a conference call with Jenkins and Boldin, but Goodell balked. There was no need to talk unless the players were prepared to “put pencil to paper,” as Goodell likes to say.

For months, the commissioner had had to hold off a growing number of owners who wanted him to shut down the protests as quickly as possible. And for months, he had worked with players to create a partnership. As the son of a former U.S. senator, he’d grown up insulated and largely unaffected by the injustices fueling the players’ protests. That’s why when Jenkins invited him to sit in on a bail hearing and go on a ride-along with Philadelphia police on Sept. 21, he’d accepted. And why when Miami Dolphins players invited him to meet with community leaders and law enforcement in South Florida on Oct. 10, he’d agreed.

The increased awareness — along with the passion and commitment to community work he witnessed from the players — led the commissioner to offer $89 million of the owners’ money to causes the coalition identified. All he needed now was the players’ approval on a partnership, which had seemed imminent the night before Thanksgiving when he’d joined Jenkins, Boldin, Reid and Thomas on the conference call. Now Reid & Co.’s break from the coalition threatened to derail the partnership on the final morning of the league’s committee meetings.

“There was a real sense of frustration on his part,” Vincent said of Goodell. “You could see it in his face and hear it in his voice. It was, ‘Guys! Guys! Every time we get on a call it’s more and more and more. You want more. How do I explain this [to the owners]? My back is against the wall.’ ”

“Give the players a chance,” Jenkins recalled telling Goodell on the call. “Don’t hold us all accountable for a few we can’t control. Commissioner, we didn’t know that that was going to happen with Eric. Give us a chance, and give this platform a chance. Together we can make a difference.”

“You’re absolutely right,” Goodell replied. “Let’s just focus and what we can do and how we can make a difference.”

He turned to Vincent and Kim Fields, his personal assistant, and asked them to put the players’ request in writing. Then he asked Jenkins and Boldin to take the proposal back to the players for final approval. As a sign of good faith, he added two years to the initial five-year proposal and waived the players’ matching contributions for two years. Hours later, the deal was done.

“It’s proof that if you take the time to listen and understand one another and have the dialogue, you can make progress,” Goodell said. “These players have done a remarkable job of leading and helping us understand the issues that they’re concerned about. But it starts with just taking the time to listen and understand.”

The partnership was not celebrated by everyone. Kaepernick supporters in particular accused coalition members of selling out and taking “hush money,” particularly when Jenkins announced the following day that he would no longer raise his fist in protest. The Eagle said he was now focusing on moving forward and putting in the work for change, not getting into a public debate about whether he was fully transparent and represented the wishes of everyone in the group.

“Obviously everything that we’re doing is to move past the protests of the anthem and move toward progress,” he said. “But at no point in time has the mandate that we stop protesting been in the proposal or been anything that we’ve said we’d do until guys felt comfortable that there was an adequate replacement. It’s unfortunate and I understand their frustrations at times at not being at the front of everything, but everything that we’ve done has been very, very transparent.”

On Dec. 18, in a conference room at the league offices in New York City, owners Michael Bidwill of Arizona, Jimmy Haslam of Cleveland, Shad Khan of Jacksonville and Stephen Ross of the Dolphins met with coalition members Boldin, Beachum, McCown and Hall of Fame defensive back Aeneas Williams for the first time since putting pencil to paper. All of them quickly realized that the hard part was just beginning, because now they needed to figure out how the partnership would actually work. Who would be in charge of what? When would monies be allocated and how much? Who would have the final say on what programs got funded?

“When it comes to the deal itself, I’m not sure there is a deal,” Edwards says when asked about the validity of the partnership. “As I look at it, the devil isn’t in the details, it’s in the delivery. … There’s nothing wrong with the civil rights bill or the voting rights bill or the equal housing opportunity bill or the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision — except it breaks down at the point of delivery. Unless you substantially control and manage the delivery, you’ve been took, you’ve been had, you’ve been bamboozled.”

The uncertainty over so many of foundational details was another factor in why some players contend they broke from the coalition. One asked; “How can you agree to something without knowing the details of how it will work?” Boldin and Jenkins understand the criticism but contend they were running out of time to get anything at all done. And on the eve of the Super Bowl, there is now a formal committee and a process for identifying recipients, says Boldin. On the national level, the Players Coalition has chosen recipients including the United Negro College Fund to receive monies from the first round of funding.

“At the end of the day, the NFL is a business, and if the owners feel like the kneeling is going to hurt their bottom dollar, they will take that platform away from guys,” Boldin said. “Then what will guys have? You going to take a knee at practice when nobody is watching? Now you don’t have a platform and you don’t have a seat at the table to bring about real change. I doubt there are any of those guys who are willing to walk away from their jobs and say, ‘I’m not willing to play in this sport anymore until X, Y and Z are done.’ ”

There has recently been an attempt to smooth over the bad blood. Rhetoric has softened. All eyes are on the Super Bowl. But whether any lasting peace can be accomplished remains to be seen. As someone who was at the forefront of athlete activism in the 1960s and beyond, Edwards has seen this movie before — the in-fighting, the accusations, the battle for praise and glory and leadership.

“Leadership is not the function of Eric Reid and Colin Kaepernick,” Edwards said. “They have done something that no one else could do: They incited a movement, and they should take tremendous pride in that. But inciting a movement does not make you the leader of it. … One of the things people find when they insist on being leaders while the parade is going in another direction — after a period of time they’re just ignored. They’re not leading anything, they’re just out for a walk. At the end of the day, these issues are too critical and there’s too much at stake. … Look, I love Eric Reid and Kaep, but the reality is that the movement has grown so much bigger than the people who started it.”

Which was what led Norman to fire off his blunt message on Nov. 7. “It’s about trying to do good for others,” he says now, “not who gets the praise and glory.”

We’ll know who gets the money before we know about the praise and glory. That may well be for the history books to decide.

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