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NFL players at odds don’t realize that everyone can be right about this

Jenkins, Reid and others all want the same thing — and things can still be accomplished

Malcolm X used to snidely refer to Martin Luther King Jr. as “Reverend Dr. Chicken Wing” because he thought King’s nonviolent response to racism was soft and an insult to the black people who Malcolm felt had a right to physically defend themselves against the violence perpetrated against them.

But here’s another story about Malcolm X and MLK that never seems to be told as often: In 1964, Malcolm X approached King as he was leaving a news conference, shook his hand and called him “Reverend Dr. Chicken Wing” to his face.

Then they both laughed.

As we came to learn, Malcolm X’s dislike of MLK dissipated as the outspoken Muslim leader came to understand, respect and appreciate King’s nonviolent approach. Ironically, though, in King’s later years, he seemed to take on the fighting characteristics that are most associated with his iconic onetime critic.

Basically, MLK and Malcolm X eventually figured out that they were more alike than they were different. And as this rift develops among the NFL players who have fought to push the league into investing in social justice causes, it seems apparent that the players who are at odds don’t fully realize that everyone can be right — and things can still be accomplished.

On Dec. 1, I spoke with Malcolm Jenkins, one of the key cogs in the Players Coalition, a group of about 40 NFL players who have been negotiating directly with the NFL, having formed in the wake of Colin Kaepernick’s protest against social injustice.

Jenkins has become a target of criticism since it was reported last week that the NFL was donating about $100 million to various social justice causes that specifically affect the African-American community.

The NFL’s donation wasn’t greeted very warmly. It was viewed by many as a payoff to discourage players from staging peaceful protests and demonstrations during the national anthem. And it didn’t help that in concert with the donation announcement, Jenkins announced he would no longer raise his fist during the anthem.

Then, Eric Reid, a vocal and powerful leader within the coalition, announced that he was separating from the coalition, and in the process he heavily criticized Jenkins and the burgeoning partnership between the NFL and the players. Reid called the donation a “charade.”

“Maybe guys felt slighted,” Jenkins told me.

“Maybe they didn’t feel like they had enough say. But everybody has been involved in every decision. I know some guys wanted more money and more control. I know Eric talked about transparency. But the coalition we set up is player-run, and we all have equal voting power.”

Jenkins is bewildered not only by the backlash to the donation but also by the fracture that’s occurred within a group that seemed to largely be in lockstep until this point.

“It’s disappointing to see the personal attacks,” Jenkins said. “If we disagree, we disagree. That’s healthy. The personal attacks are really confusing, especially in public, when we’re trying to get something accomplished.”

Now this didn’t come from Reid or any of the members who have distanced themselves from the Players Coalition, but the Twitter detectives quickly unearthed that Jenkins is a Papa John’s franchise owner.

For some, all the dots seemed to connect. The NFL promises a ton of money. Jenkins lowers his fist. And come to find out he’s in business with John Schnatter, the CEO of Papa John’s, who not only is known for his conservative views but also recently blamed the player protests for hurting his pizza sales.

“I became an owner before those comments were made,” said Jenkins, who owns five Papa John’s franchises. “But all five of these stores are in the black community. It’s entirely black-owned. In fact, 98 percent of our employees are black. We’re able to give jobs and employment. Papa John’s doesn’t have much diversity, and I plan on challenging them on that. I get what it looks like, but at the end of the day, I’m about people and not the way it looks.”

Jenkins also points out that in his franchises, there is an emphasis on hiring former felons who have been disenfranchised because of their criminal record.

What we’re witnessing is just the modern-day version of Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. Du Bois. Or Cornel West versus President Barack Obama.

And unfortunately the same mistake is being made. The focus has become the differences rather than the commonalities. Jenkins, Reid and Kaepernick all want the same thing: tangible policy changes that address how people of color are systematically abused by the criminal justice system. They want people of color to have access and opportunity. They want the war on black bodies to stop.

Allow me to use a sports analogy: When it comes to winning, every player wants to win. But most players, especially the good and great ones, only want to win their way.

Jenkins admitted that there is some tension between himself and Kaepernick. It reached the point where he and Kaepernick weren’t speaking to each other personally but through Kaepernick’s attorneys.

“[Colin] was on conference calls with us and in a group chat,” Jenkins said. “At some point, we had a disagreement and he started having his attorneys call me. And I’m like, we’re on a group chat and you can’t just call me?”

Jenkins said he tried to arrange a personal meeting with Kaepernick but Kaepernick declined. They’ve exchanged a few texts since then, and although they seem to disagree on the NFL’s sincerity in creating this partnership with the players, Jenkins said, “Trust me, I understand his value to this.”

Kaepernick’s camp declined to respond to Jenkins’ comments, but considering how the NFL has treated Kaepernick — remember that he has filed a lawsuit against the NFL accusing the owners of conspiring to keep him out of the league — I don’t blame Kaepernick for being skeptical of any partnership involving the NFL.

However, if anyone would have said that Kaepernick’s powerful decision to kneel would someday result in the NFL creating a platform for social justice and donating nearly $100 million to that cause, would it have been considered a victory?

The answer is yes.

As Jenkins told me, he knew he couldn’t raise his fist forever. There had to be an endgame.

According to Jenkins, the NFL has agreed to give the players their platform during the playoffs and the Super Bowl to create a social justice campaign, which is no small thing. Jenkins and the players also plan to use the NFL’s legislative influence to push for more equitable reform.

“I’m excited because what we’ve done has never been done before,” Jenkins said. “We’re talking about using the NFL platform to talk about issues that are important to the African-American community, on top of using their legislative power to create change. The underreported part of this is the platform piece.”

Of course, you would be foolish and naive if you believed the NFL is donating this money or allowing the players to push their message on their enormous platform because suddenly the league and its owners care about the systematic abuses that people of color suffer.

But do the league’s motives even matter?

Generally speaking, protests aren’t resolved because the oppressors have a change of heart. Change is engineered usually because it affects the bottom line, or it disrupts a way of life.

The NFL is in scramble mode because it’s trying to change a narrative that the product is being undermined by players who only seek justice and equality. The league’s panic is the players’ greatest leverage.

Jenkins, Reid and Kaepernick are all right in their own way. There is nothing wrong with partnering with the league and using its money to influence and create real change, but it’s more than fair for Reid and the other players to be distrustful of a league that’s done everything to earn its untrustworthy reputation.

“One thing I’ve learned,” Jenkins said, “is that I can’t change the way some of these owners think. I’m not interested in whether or not Jerry Jones cares about black issues. Whether their hearts are in it or not, I don’t care. Whether they were pressured or are halfhearted really doesn’t matter to me. I’m acting in faith. We will hold them to it.”

Jemele Hill is a Senior Correspondent and Columnist for ESPN and The Undefeated.