Thomas Prior

The Radicalization of American Football

A conversation with Malcolm Jenkins, the political activist and Super Bowl champion behind the Players Coalition

When Malcolm Jenkins heard about Donald Trump’s tweets condemning National Football League players for kneeling during the national anthem, he was unruffled. Jenkins is a man of convictions and bespoke suits. At 30, he is one of the top defensive players in the NFL. He has the versatility to play multiple positions, shows catlike quickness down the field, and is strong enough to knock ballcarriers off their routes. As a captain of the Philadelphia Eagles, he recently helped lead his team to a Super Bowl title. And as a co-founder of the Players Coalition—an organization that fights injustices disproportionately affecting African Americans—he can cite police-shooting statistics and discuss the finer points of Pennsylvania’s proposed Clean Slate legislation, which would seal criminal records for people charged with minor offenses. So when the president wrote a series of tweets calling for protesting NFL players to be fired, Jenkins just shrugged. “It was like any other troll,” he told me.

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For more than a year before Trump’s tweets, Jenkins had seen his share of online vitriol. In the summer of 2016, not long after Colin Kaepernick began his protest against the unjust treatment of people of color, Jenkins joined three other Eagles players in raising his fist during the anthem, a gesture he repeated until nearly the end of the 2017–18 season. He also became a leader in organizing players to explore, and then explain, why they were taking such a public—and, among many NFL fans, unpopular—position.

Jenkins co-founded the Players Coalition with the former wide receiver Anquan Boldin to focus on criminal-justice reform, police and community relations, and education and economic advancement in low-income communities and communities of color. It now includes more than 75 current and former players, led by a voting board of 12. Late this fall, as the NFL grappled with how to respond to the protesting players and the Trump administration’s unstinting attacks, the Players Coalition not only defended the right to protest but also helped persuade the league to commit $89 million to social-justice causes.

Jenkins has had a busy year. He opened a men’s-wear store in Philadelphia, welcomed his second daughter, made the Pro Bowl—and taunted Tom Brady when the New England Patriots quarterback dropped a pass on a trick play in the Super Bowl. He spoke with me about political organizing, the tension in activism between collaboration and confrontation, giving and getting concussions, and why he plays football.

This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.

How did you get involved with policing and other social-justice issues? I’d been vocal about police shootings and some of the injustices in the country on social media, but that was it. Then at the espys in 2016, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony gave a speech calling athletes to action. We had just seen the shootings of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the officers in Dallas, back to back to back. That was my boiling point. I thought, I can’t keep sitting behind my phone, trying to change things with 140 characters. I have to get involved. But I didn’t know what that would look like.

Did you think about these issues as a kid? I remember my dad always complaining about getting pulled over. I remember the differences in school systems. I remember seeing police officers, not knowing their names, and knowing that they were there not to protect us, not to serve us, but to watch us. Now, as an adult, I’m seeing the symptoms of a bigger problem.

How did the Players Coalition come together? It started with a group text. We had probably 60 players on it, two or three guys from almost every team. In those conversations, Anquan Boldin extended an invitation to come to Capitol Hill to meet with legislators. Three other guys and I took him up on the offer. We made the trip during the [2016–17] season, then took another trip that March, 2017. Once we realized how much influence we were able to have, how many meetings we were able to get, we realized we could amplify our voices if we put them together.

Were those meetings with congressional leaders productive? That was our starting point because, quite frankly, we didn’t know where else to start. We got an idea of how slowly things move, and also how in politics things don’t always make sense. Republicans, Democrats, it didn’t matter—every single person we met with agreed there was a need for reform. When we asked why it wasn’t happening, it basically came down to politics.

So we took that same process to the state and local level. We meet with grassroots organizers, legislators, and police departments, and push for bills that are happening locally. We realized that’s where most things are happening anyway.

You’ve been doing that in Philadelphia. I reached out to the police commissioner, Richard Ross Jr., and did a ride-along with members of the police department. I didn’t expect us to have one meeting and change the city. But I did leave with a better understanding of what the problem was, especially here in Philadelphia, where a lot of it is systemic. It’s not necessarily about the individual. We get caught up on getting rid of the bad individual, and not how the system encourages them to act that way.

You later brought NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Eagles owner, Jeffrey Lurie, to meet with the Philadelphia police commissioner, and public defenders as well. They wanted to know how they could support us and how we could work together. So we said, “Come see why we’re protesting; come see why we’re making all this noise.” We said, “We’re not looking for permission to do anything. We’ve already been doing this on our own. But if you want to understand what we’re trying to get accomplished, we invite you to see for yourself firsthand.”

It sounds like the NFL’s response to the Players Coalition has been very different from its response to Colin Kaepernick. What Colin has had to go through is just not right. Whether he can prove it or not, everyone understands that his stance is the reason he doesn’t have a job. That said, this movement has to continue. We have to pick up the baton and run. Whether the NFL truly wanted to help, or whether they were concerned about the bottom dollar and wanted to move past the negative publicity, they leaned in.

When the NFL’s $89 million commitment was announced, there was blowback from some players who had been involved in the coalition, most notably Eric Reid, of the San Francisco 49ers, who had protested with Kaepernick almost from the start. Were you surprised? Right as we got really close to finishing the deal, we were surprised when Eric and a few other guys decided to leave the coalition. I guess they didn’t like where it was at, even being part of the process. We hadn’t actually accepted the deal from the league yet. But they left the coalition, the rest of us got on a call, everyone was cool, and we moved on.

Have you talked to Reid? I haven’t. I’ve been focused on getting the coalition up and running. But we’re all trying to get the same things done. I think there will be room to mend that.

In any activist movement, there’s debate over whether to be confrontational or collaborative. There’s something to be learned from each philosophy. When we were meeting with the league, we recognized significant opportunity to collaborate, but we understand that there have to be nonnegotiables. We are not watering down the message for anything. There is a time to be stubborn, and a time to negotiate. We learn from those who have done that before.

The Eagles owner has been pretty supportive of you, it seems. Yeah.

But other owners, like Jerry Jones, have said that we’re not here for a civics lesson. What would you tell a Cowboys player who says, “I want to get involved, but I’m worried about my job”? I understand that situation. That’s why we’ve tried to create a safer environment for getting involved. It doesn’t have to be controversial. You can get involved with a social-media campaign; you can get involved with signing your name to an op-ed, or writing a letter, or sitting down with police. You don’t have to take a knee to be a part of the movement.

When the NFL’s commitment was announced, you said you would stop raising your fist during the anthem. Why were you raising your fist in the first place? I raised my fist because I understood the significance and the history of that gesture. The Olympics, Tommie Smith and John Carlos [who gave the black-power salute at the 1968 Games]—no one could misconstrue the significance. I saw Colin sitting, and no one knew the story, so his story was told for him. [Kaepernick began his protest by sitting during the anthem but switched to kneeling after a member of the military suggested that it would be a more respectful gesture.]

I wanted to be clear. But there was always an end goal. I wasn’t demonstrating for the sake of demonstrating. It’s not just the money but the initiative; the NFL has this huge platform, and they’re using it to talk about issues. Now all of the sudden we have everybody’s eyes. With that in place, I felt comfortable moving on from the demonstration to holding the league accountable for all the things they’ve committed to.

You mentioned the history of the civil-rights movement. How do you know it? I read up on people who have done this before. I probably need to read a little more. A lot of times I’ll listen to old speeches on YouTube—Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther movement. They could give those speeches today and they would be relevant.

To you, what do police accountability and transparency look like? What do you think you can reasonably accomplish? It’s pretty simple. If there’s a shooting or something that didn’t need to happen, we want law-enforcement officers to be held accountable, just like any other citizen would be. When there is corruption in a police department, we want [the department] to be held accountable. But at the same time, we don’t want to isolate the police. It’s not an attack on the police; we need to rebuild the relationship between our communities and law enforcement, rebuild that trust.

We’ve been interacting with this group out of Florida called rite [Racial Intelligence Training and Engagement] Academy. We’re trying to figure out what the best practices are when it comes to training officers to engage in the community, to understand themselves and some of the trauma they’ve been going through, to make sure they can properly do their job and treat everybody with the same respect.

The police go through trauma, too. They’re seeing victims, 16-year-old kids being shot—they see that, and before they can even process that and deal with that as a human being, they have to go on to the next call, and the next call, and the next call. Mental health is not something that they think about, or that they deal with as a department. So with the rite training, before officers even go out, they have to do a self-evaluation of where they are that day and know where their trigger points are. That’s an approach I hadn’t thought about, and I thought it was pretty brilliant.

The NFL is 70 percent black, and the movement is obviously African American–led. Do you make any effort to reach out to white players? I think it should be African American–led. But I also think we need support from everyone. Look at [New York Jets quarterback] Josh McCown, [Philadelphia Eagles defensive end] Chris Long—these issues don’t necessarily affect them, but they see injustices. We extend the invitation to anyone who wants to join. Those two happen to be the only two Caucasians who’ve come to the table, but a ton of people are getting involved. We had the Pistons head coach, Stan Van Gundy, commending us, which is big. He’s supporting us. That’s all we’re asking for.

Jenkins and Rodney McLeod Jr. raise their fists at a home game in October, while Chris Long shows his support. (Rich Schultz / Getty)

You’ve mentioned the NBA a couple of times. Do you work with athletes from other leagues? We’re starting those conversations. First we had to get our own house in order. But we’re talking to coaches in the NBA, players in the NBA, a couple of guys in MLB.

It’s funny how, in a sense, Trump’s attacks accelerated and amplified these conversations. It wasn’t the first time he said something crazy. I didn’t take it too personally, because I had already dealt with plenty of backlash on social media. I think what you saw was locker rooms getting upset and getting behind their teammates. I think it was a wake-up call to come to our defense. Because up until that point they hadn’t.

What kind of backlash? Were you ever worried about a personal or professional cost? There were threats to me and my family—and brands and sponsors that didn’t want to work with me, because of my political stance. All of that was to be understood when I stepped into this realm. To me, that’s worth it.

There are brands that don’t want to work with you? All the time. I’m a Pro Bowl player, just won the Super Bowl. I should be able to get almost any endorsement that I want, but oftentimes we get to the table and someone says, “We don’t want to use him, because of all the things that are going on, maybe at a later time when it’s died down.” I’ve heard that a lot. But it’s to be understood.

You have a fashion line. What is it about fashion that you enjoy? Fashion to me is trends—it’s what other people are wearing; it’s what’s hot this season. I’m not as interested in that. Style to me is personal. Style is what each individual has. When someone finds their own personal style and they own it, they look good in it, no matter what it is. That’s what I enjoy. I found my own style, and it feels good when I can sit down with a client and figure out what they like and build that into a suit.

When did you start playing football? I grew up playing in the streets. We played two-hand touch from street pole to street pole. That’s how I learned the game. When we got old enough to play Pop Warner, I was a little bigger than the rest of my friends, so everybody else was in a younger league. I thought, This sucks. So I quit. But when I got home I realized everyone else was at practice. Then the next year, I still didn’t really like it. Coaches yell at you, make you run laps. It wasn’t fun, so I quit again. But as I grew and learned more about the game, how to play it, I stuck with it and started to excel.

Why do you play football now? What do you like about it? You can answer “the money.” I’ve played this game plenty of times for free. Now the money is just offsetting the damage it’s doing to my body. [Laughs] But this game teaches you so much. Look at the dynamics of a locker room. You’ve got guys from all over the country, all different races, religions, backgrounds, and you put them on one team, and they’re forced to work together. They’re all playing with one goal, and that’s to win.

You prepare every week, you see what the result is on Sunday, you evaluate, and then you prepare again. You do it over and over again. That process is oftentimes how I go about life outside of football as well: I come up with a plan, I prepare, I go out, I see what happens, I evaluate, and I start over.

That locker-room dynamic you described—people from all different backgrounds working together—sounds like a beautiful and idealized way of seeing things. But it also seems like a recipe for tension. Yeah. Tension is inevitable. But how do you deal with that tension? At the end of the day, you’ve still got to play a game. And it prepares you, because now you also know how to deal with conflict. When you don’t agree—which you won’t always—will you be able to buy into the game plan anyway and still be able to execute your job, or will the team fall apart?

It’s hard to talk about football these days without talking about concussions. Do you worry about them? No, not really. Like anything, you weigh risk versus reward. I’ve only had one major concussion in my entire career. I’m sure there have been other traumas, smaller traumas here and there. But what this has offered my family, what I’ve been able to do from a platform standpoint—everything that this game has given me is well worth the risk. Now, if I get to a point where that scale tips the other way, then I will gracefully bow out. I think every player has to make that decision on their own.

Do you ever worry about giving concussions? During the Super Bowl, you put a legal hit on [Patriots wide receiver] Brandin Cooks, and he went down. Watching, there was a moment when I held my breath. What’s going through your mind at that point? You never want to see a guy get a concussion. But at the end of the day, it’s a part of the game. Ten times out of 10, I wouldn’t do anything different. My dad always told me that you have to play hard and as fast as you can, because if you play not to get hurt, that’s when you get hurt. I play the game full speed. After nine years in the league, I’ve completely changed the way I tackle and approach ballcarriers, because I was taught a better, safer way. I don’t worry about giving anybody else a concussion, because most times I’m not trying to hit guys in their head anyway, because that usually hurts me as well. [Laughs]

Do you have any goals in mind when you step onto the field, besides winning the game? What do you tell yourself? There are banners on either side of Lincoln Financial Field. On one side, you have the team banners, so you have the 1960 championship—that was before the Super Bowl was around—then you got all the NFC conference championships. I always look up there, and I want our team to be up there in the banners, because they don’t take those down. Then I look to the other side, and it’s got the Ring of Honor—all the great Eagles players, the legends—and I want my name on that side of the stadium as well. So that’s my goal. In any game, I think, What do I want the memory of this game to be? It’s got to be epic every time I step onto the field. Doesn’t always happen, but that’s my goal.

So you just won the Super Bowl. You got the banner. It’s been a party ever since.

You enjoy this part? The morning shows, the celebration, the parade? Yeah. This is what you work for. The trophy is one thing, but really you work for the feeling. I won a Super Bowl my first year in New Orleans, and I was so young, I couldn’t really appreciate it. After the season was over, I didn’t really do a whole bunch of partying and celebrating; I just sort of went back into resting. Eight years later, I’m like, Man, I wish I enjoyed that more. This time around, I wanted to make sure. In a couple months, we’ll be putting that trophy on a shelf, and getting back to the grind of starting over.

This article appears in the May 2018 print edition with the headline “‘We’re Not Looking for Permission.’”