Malcolm Jenkins looks tired.
The Eagles have just wrapped up a practice on the Thursday after Election Day at the NovaCare complex in South Philly, and Jenkins settles into a dark leather chair in the corner of a small spare office. He’s wearing a black long-sleeve shirt, black pants, and a black Eagles T-shirt that looks like it’s made of those synthetic fibers that are supposed to make you sweat less when you exercise.
Images are spreading across the Internet of a surreal scene that just unfolded 136 miles away. President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump sat before a horde of reporters in the White House, politely discussing the 90-minute closed door meeting they’d just had — because that’s what usually happens after a presidential election, even one that feels like it could have taken place in the same dystopian universe as The Running Man.
The photo-op was meant to be reassuring, proof that the country will continue to function as it always has, even though a former reality TV star will now be in charge of the whole damned thing come January. But it did little to quell the anxiety that’s gripping millions of Americans who worry their safety is now in jeopardy because of the color of their skin. Call it a side effect of having the Klu Klux Klan’s former grand wizard brag that “our people” played a big role in electing a guy who’s promised to double down on stop-and-frisk, to ban Muslims from entering the country, to have a deportation force hunt down undocumented immigrants.
Jenkins shakes his head when I say the words President Trump out loud, a look falling across his face that could be summed up as: So That Really Happened. Earlier this year, he said he thought about 90 percent of his white teammates supported Trump, but he was still left stunned when the Republican beat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
He is no stranger to weighing in on racial and political issues that exist outside the bubble of this week’s game and that day’s practice. Jenkins raises his right arm in the air, fist tightly clenched, in silent protest when the national anthem is belted out before every game. He and other NFL players have been making similar gestures to call attention to systemic social injustice issues ever since San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started sitting and kneeling during the anthem back in August in response to a spate of controversial police shootings of black men. NBA players and coaches have also spoken out forcefully on these topics, while the Sixers caused a stir last month when they canceled a pop singer’s planned performance of the national anthem because she wore a jersey with the words “We Matter” written across her chest — only to clumsily invite her back.
But the number of NFL players who are protesting has gradually fallen to a little more than a dozen on just five teams in a league where more than 68 percent of the players are black. Jenkins is the only Eagle who holds his fist in the air and discusses thorny issues, like the sometimes fraught relationship between law enforcement and minority communities. Cornerback Ron Brooks had consistently stood by Jenkins’s side, but he’s gone now, lost to a season-ending injury.
“I’m the lone soldier,” Jenkins says. He’s not exactly surprised it turned out this way; early on, he realized that “quite frankly, a lot guys don’t care about this topic, or aren’t passionate enough to go out and do the work.”
The teammates who have decided, for one reason or another, not to join the pregame protests are also avoiding the conversations Jenkins is hoping to breed. “No one really said anything to me about it at all this entire time,” he says. “But it’s one of those things, like, I know people talk about it away from me. I’ll catch wind of another conversation, or someone else’s opinions.”
It gets lonely, being The Guy who speaks out about complicated, controversial things. But if some of the early fallout from Trump’s victory is any indication — black students at the University of Pennsylvania were added to an online message group that called for daily lynchings; middle school students in Michigan chanted “Build that wall!,” driving their Latino classmates to tears; Muslim students have been harassed and attacked — it’s going to be more important than ever for athletes like Jenkins to go off-script when they’re on camera, and speak up for people who feel ostracized or devalued in a divided America.
“I think at this point now, if you have a strong opinion about these things, this is the time where you have to use your voice,” Jenkins says. “Because otherwise, [laws] will get passed, things will come to pass, and if you don’t stand up now, you’re just going to have to live with it.”
It’s going to require more than just words, because a hashtag or a headline will only get you so far. Jenkins knows as much. His relationship with the Philadelphia Police Department offers a hint of what can happen when two sides move beyond the noise and have an actual dialogue.
JOHN JACKSON JR. HAS only a minute to talk, maybe two. Dozens of college students are filling up a room on the second floor of the University of Pennsylvania bookstore, waiting for Jackson, the dean of the university’s School of Social Policy & Practice, to lead a panel discussion on societal problems the Trump administration will have to tackle come January 20th.
I ask him if we should expect to see politics bleed into sports more now, especially if Trump continues spewing the hateful rhetoric that fueled his campaign, or if Newt Gingrich, who will likely hold a major cabinet position, gets to pursue his dream of reviving a House Committee on Un-American Activities. Sports fans and team owners probably wouldn’t be happy about seeing policy questions pop up during postgame interviews; a recent Seton Hall poll found that 56 percent of adult fans believe that the NFL is experiencing a double-digit dip in TV ratings this season because of the national anthem protests.
Even before Charles Barkley famously triggered a debate in the early 1990s about whether athletes are role models, “people were trying to figure out whether it was appropriate for athletes who have no special expertise in politics to do that kind of work,” Jackson says. “But I think it’s inevitable that we’re all political actors. No matter how you slice it, I think one of our responsibilities is to use whatever platform we have to get people thinking about the kind of political community they want to be a part of.”
Jenkins, 28, warmed to his position as the Eagles’ protester-in-chief after the national conversation about fatal police shootings of black men reached a fever pitch following the deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in Minnesota. At the time, Trump loomed in the background, the self-declared “law-and-order candidate” who seemed to harbor little sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The scary thing to me,” Jenkins says, “is when Trump is asked specifically about police brutality or the violence in these communities, his suggestion is to bring back stop-and-frisk, which is the complete opposite of what I would suggest to fix the problem and the relationships between the community and the [police] officers.”
His stance on these issues is more moderate, formed over time by experiences that were both worrisome and positive. Jenkins says he’s had moments where he felt he was being racially profiled by police, pulled over for reasons that didn’t quite seem right. But he also became friendly with cops he got to know in New Orleans when he played for the Saints. “My girlfriend’s dad in high school was a police officer in Northern New Jersey, and he was a really good man.”
The initial plan was to have a large number of Eagles join together in protest, but there were never more than four who actually raised their fists before a game — Jenkins, Brooks, and defensive ends Steven Means and Marcus Smith earlier in the season.
“As things have moved on, they stopped showing protests and stuff on TV, and the election came up, and football and all of that stuff. You kind of got left with the handful of guys who were still interested,” Jenkins says. “It’s kind of what we expected. That’s what happened in the past. A hashtag comes up and then, for a couple of weeks, it’s hot. And then you forget all about it until another [shooting] happens.”
Who knew what the consequences of protesting could be? The NFL’s position has been both clear and murky. When Kaepernick first started making headlines, commissioner Roger Goodell said he disagreed with the quarterback’s actions, but was simultaneously supportive of players who want to see change in society. Goodell later adopted an even warmer public tone towards players who have spoken out.
Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay, on the other hand, made it clear he didn’t see any room for the First Amendment in America’s Game, telling USA TODAY: “I think it’s the wrong venue. It hasn’t been a positive thing. What we all have to be aware of as players, owners, PR people, equipment managers, is when the lights go on we are entertainment. We are being paid to put on a show. There are other places to express yourself.”
Irsay’s comments came a few weeks after the Colts cut former Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie, whose wife claimed it was because he kneeled during the anthem. Cromartie in turn posted a photo of Martin Luther King Jr., on Instagram, along with a quote: “The time is always right to do what is right.”
Carl Francis, the communications director for the NFL Players Association, tells me no players have been suspended or penalized for “using their freedom of speech.” Some have reached out for guidance on what they can and can’t do, but most, he says, are comfortable with expressing their views. I ask if the players association is looking into Cromartie’s wife’s allegation, which, if true, could have one hell of a chilling effect on other people in the league. “No sir,” he writes in an email.
Eagles head coach Doug Pederson covered every conceivable base with a short statement: “We respect the national anthem, its history and our many freedoms as Americans that it celebrates. We also respect an individual’s freedom of expression.” To the team’s credit, they didn’t hesitate to make Jenkins available for an interview, knowing full well that whatever he said — and no matter how calmly and eloquently he said it — would rub some people the wrong way.
Jenkins runs a hand along his neatly trimmed beard. “If you look around the league, I think a lot of the guys who are protesting are established veterans. There’s not many young guys, not many bubble players, because although there might not be a coach that stands up or an owner that stands up and tells the team, ‘Hey, you can’t protest,’ there’s been enough subtle reminders that you’re not as secure as you think,” he says.”That’s one thing that deters a lot of people.”
Players who have kneeled or raised their fists have faced serious backlash. When the 49ers traveled to Buffalo to play the Bills last month, T-shirts were sold outside of Ralph Wilson Stadium of a rifle scope trained on Kaepernick. “WANTED,” the shirts read, “Notorious Disgrace to America.” Haters lit up Jenkins on social media. In that way, he’s no different than anybody else with a Twitter account, except his day job earns him millions, and the league he works for makes billions, and threats to the bottom line aren’t exactly welcomed.
“There are ways to inject difficult-to-have conversations into the national dialogue, and athletes and entertainers are well-positioned to do that. We need more of that,” says Omar Woodard, the executive director of the Philadelphia arm of the GreenLight Fund, an organization that pushes for solutions to urban poverty.
“It is a professional risk to do what Malcolm Jenkins is doing. It’s not an easy decision to make when you’re making millions of dollars, and the reason you’re making that money is because you play the game really well, and that’s what you’re supposed to focus on,” he says. “Not everyone can be brave. But the people who stand out in human history are those who are brave.”
When Jenkins is out and about, he finds he gets mostly positive comments from people who know what he’s doing even if they’re not Eagles fans. The attaboy that meant the most came unexpectedly. “My dad never sends text messages,” Jenkins says, a small smile forming on his face. “The first time I protested, he sent me a text message after that game. I realized it was the only text I had from him. There’s no thread there at all. And he said he’s never been more proud.”
POLICE COMMISSIONER RICHARD ROSS was a little skeptical when Jenkins reached out to him a few months ago with an idea for a collaborative project.
Ross had met previously at police headquarters with Jenkins, a couple of other Eagles, and a handful of city residents who wanted to talk about improving the relationship between cops and minority communities. Now Jenkins wanted to take things a step further; he and a few teammates wanted to do a ride along with some police officers and record their interactions as part of a mini-documentary for Vice Sports.
“I didn’t really know what was going to happen,” Ross says, “but I had challenged all of the people in that room to not have this [meeting] be the only thing we did together. To Malcolm’s credit, he chose to do that next project.”
Think about the significance of what Jenkins had proposed. A demonstration before a football game lasted a few moments, but then it was over. Meeting the city’s top cop in a comfortable office was interesting, but not exactly life-changing. Climbing into an old, cramped police cruiser with rank-and-file cops and zipping around the battered and broken bones of a neighborhood where gunshots can ring out at any given moment was something else altogether, a step that few critics of law enforcement would ever consider taking.
But Jenkins, Brooks, and Means did exactly that one recent night in the 25th District, which straddles parts of North Philly and Kensington and plays host to one of the most active open-air heroin markets in the country. The cameras caught a beat cop and a famous athlete unpacking their worldviews with the patience and care of someone dissembling a bomb. Officer George Soto told Jenkins cops can’t just let a possible suspect in a crime walk away because the guy says he’s innocent; Jenkins described how a car stop would unfold differently for him than it would for rookie quarterback Carson Wentz.
The project wound up being a study in the importance of abandoning assumptions and having actual conversations, a lesson we’d all do well to learn from. Jenkins was bowled over by Capt. Michael Cram, the district’s commander. Cram is as decent a human being as you could ever meet, an outgoing military veteran who has spent most of his career building a bond with people in that area. “I told [Ross], Cram is doing it the right way. Unfortunately, through my own experience, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of Captain Crams out there,” Jenkins says. “And he was like, ‘Do you actually know that? In all actuality, there’s probably a lot more Captains Crams than there are anyone else.’ And I said, OK, that’s a legitimate point.”
Ross and Jenkins both had the same takeaway: The Police Department needs to do a better job of calling attention to cops who spend their days building relationships, not just locking people up. “We cannot be afraid to show people who we are. We cannot circle the wagons and say we don’t want to show our policies,” Ross says. “But we don’t always do a good job of telling our story.”
Imagine if more people adopted Jenkins’s approach. Imagine if a Trump supporter who says everyone needs to stop whining about the election instead spent some time with a Muslim woman who now fears for her safety. Imagine if a Hillary Clinton backer who says Trump voters are all sexists instead got to know a Rust Belt dweller who’s been left behind by the last few economic recoveries.
On Sunday, an enormous American flag was stretched from end zone to end zone at Lincoln Financial Field before the Eagles took on the Atlanta Falcons. TV cameras pulled in tight on the faces of U.S. soldiers who clutched the flag along with the players and coaches, and fighter jets rumbled through the clear blue sky, and a group of military members sang the national anthem in soaring harmony, and it all felt so big. The cameras didn’t manage to find Jenkins, alone on the sideline, his fist jutting proudly into the air.
People tweeted that he was terrible human being for protesting, that they hoped he would get injured or cut by the team. And then the game started, and he made a few huge plays, and they wrote that he might be the best safety in football, that he’s the man and the Eagles should clone him.
“Everybody’s experience is different,” Jenkins says. “And what you kind of basically have to do is patiently expose as many people as you can to the truth, and hope that it pulls at their heart.”
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