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Why Eagles took a different approach to national anthem to start season

With the NFL’s anthem policy at a standstill, the defending champs set the tone

PHILADELPHIA — On the opening night of a new season, the NFL still couldn’t shake Colin Kaepernick.

The Philadelphia Eagles unveiled their Super Bowl championship banner and defeated the visiting Atlanta Falcons, 18-12. But the game merely provided the backdrop for an early snapshot of a league in which Kaepernick no longer works. The new civil rights movement he ignited grows stronger. Some players continue to await his cue. Then there was the powerful new Nike “Dream Crazy” commercial featuring Kaepernick, which appeared on television during Thursday night’s opener. Call it another reminder that Kaepernick has become much bigger while railing against injustice in exile than he ever was during his days as a successful passer.

Just do it, indeed.

Clearly, the NFL is still flummoxed by the divisive issue of demonstrations during the anthem, as evidenced by the fact that the new anthem policy approved by owners in May hasn’t been implemented. Owners and the NFL Players Association have agreed to a standstill as they continue to work together in an attempt to find a smarter path forward. Of course, it would probably help the process if owners rallied around a single message first.

En route to their first Super Bowl title last season, the Eagles earned a well-deserved reputation for being the league’s most socially conscious team. Safety Malcolm Jenkins is the co-leader of the Players Coalition, the main group that negotiated with the league on behalf of protesting players. Defensive lineman Chris Long is in the group too. On matters of race and injustice, defensive lineman Michael Bennett, who’s tight with Kaepernick, is usually outspoken. Many other Eagles have supported criminal justice reform. Without a doubt, the Eagles are woke.

The Philadelphia Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins walks onto the field from the locker room after the national anthem before the team’s preseason NFL football game against the New York Jets on Aug. 30 in Philadelphia.

AP Photo/Michael Perez

For his form of protest, Jenkins has previously raised a fist. Long became the first white player to stand with protesting black players. At the outset of each game last season, Long was in a familiar position, his right hand over his heart and his left on Jenkins’ back. During the anthem, Bennett, acquired from the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason, usually could be found seated on the bench.

With no fear of facing disciplinary action because of the standstill, Bennett became the first player to demonstrate during the 2018 regular season. As Boyz II Men performed the anthem, Bennett turned his back on the field and walked toward the Eagles’ bench. After briefly pacing in front of it, he eventually sat down before Boyz II Men finished. Jenkins, however, did not raise a fist. He and Long hugged after the performance.

In the locker room afterward, Bennett declined to comment. But Long and Jenkins provided insight into their actions.

“I’m following Malcolm’s lead on that [whether to protest],” said Long, who contributed 1½ sacks and consistently pressured Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. “If he wants to protest, I’m down with it. But my whole thing is that I know we’re making an effort to move to attacking the issues.

“People continually focus on the protest and not what we’re doing. What Malcolm always has been doing. What a guy like Colin, who doesn’t have a job right now, has always been doing. I’m down for whatever. Really. But at the end of the day, the work off the field won’t stop. Malcolm has done a really good job drawing attention to that work.”

For the NFL, Jenkins’ decision not to protest was a gift. As one of the leaders of the movement, he sets a tone through his actions. Previously, his decision to demonstrate prompted others to as well. Times change, though, Jenkins said.

“At this point it’s important for us as a movement to continue to adapt to the context of the situation,” he said. “There’s a huge need for us to turn the attention to the issues. Not only the issues but what players are actually doing in their communities to effectuate change.”

People opposed to the movement insist it’s intended to be anti-police and anti-military. Players, however, have repeatedly explained their position: They’re primarily concerned about issues of policing in their communities, institutionalized racism, access to quality education for disadvantaged children and comprehensive criminal justice reform. This season, Jenkins plans to keep the spotlight there.

“We’re trying to move away from the rhetoric of what’s right and what’s wrong and the anthem,” he said. “Just really focus on the systemic issues that are plaguing our communities.”

Kaepernick is on that road too. His nearly yearlong legal battle against the NFL over his inability to get back in the game has further solidified his status as a hero among many African-Americans. The Nike commercial figures to help him rise even higher.

Among other things, the ad features references to people of different races and refugees. It encourages people to think big no matter the risks. And, for some, it raises the question of what patriotism is truly all about.

“The biggest net gain for me is young kids, young people of color, can look at that and say, ‘Listen, if I speak out on something I believe in, I might be marginalized. But I can still be mainstream. I can still be celebrated in popular culture,’ ” Long said.

Nike and Kaepernick achieved greatness “in the context of what’s happening right now, and taking somebody who has been demonized and villainized … and help put him up on a pedestal,” Jenkins said. “Long after all of this is done, Kap will be looked at as somebody who changed the direction not only of this sport, but just the dynamic of athletes in general and, quite frankly, our country.”

The NFL season is finally underway. And it appears Kaepernick, one way or another, is here to stay.

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