The Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year award is given annually to a player for “outstanding community service activities off the field as well as excellence on the field,” and it is considered among the league’s most prestigious individual honors. As it happens, three of this year’s nominees — the Seahawks’ Michael Bennett, the Eagles’ Malcolm Jenkins and the Dolphins’ Kenny Stills — are among the NFL players most prominently involved in the ongoing protests during the national anthem.

Jenkins had been raising his fist during pregame renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but, for the first time since early in the 2016 season, he did not do so last week. The veteran safety had said he would end his protests after the NFL agreed to donate approximately $90 million toward initiatives largely aimed at African American communities.

However, Jenkins said in a statement last week that the agreement “does not mandate an end to any player demonstrations,” and Bennett, who praised the league’s offer, took his customary seat on a bench Sunday during the anthem.

The defensive end, who has been outspoken on the social justice-related reasons for the protests and his support for former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, has been staging protests since the first preseason game in August. He has stood for the anthem twice this season, once to honor the victims of the Las Vegas mass shooting and once during the Cardinals’ “Salute to Service” night, and he has been joined on the bench by several Seattle teammates in recent weeks.

Stills and Miami teammate Michael Thomas were among the first NFL players to emulate Kaepernick’s protests last season, and they have continued to kneel during the anthem this season, apart from a brief stretch when the team told them they had to either stand or remain in the tunnel leading to the field. That policy was rescinded by Coach Adam Gase last month, while the pair have been joined by teammate Julius Thomas since late September, when President Trump sparked widespread NFL protests by making sharp criticisms at a political rally in Alabama.

“NFL players are outstanding, generous men of character who give back to their communities,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Thursday in a statement. “Walter Payton represented the very best on and off the field and this year’s Man of the Year nominees exemplify his legacy of philanthropy and leadership. We are proud to support players as they use their platforms to drive positive change.”

Each player is selected as a candidate for the award by his teammates, and Stills said (via the AP) that his nomination “comes from everything that has been going on, from having the courage we had last year to sit out for something we felt strongly about.” Referring to Bennett and Jenkins as well as himself, the wide receiver added, “I think our teammates see the commitment and passion from us. It is hard not to recognize guys who are so committed to trying to help others. That’s all it’s about.

“I’ve been given an opportunity and platform to shine light and positivity on other people. I think guys around the league are being recognized for that.”

The players who have protested have taken pains to counter critics, including Trump, by insisting that their demonstrations are in no way meant to disrespect the anthem, the American flag, military members or anyone else. Many, including Kaepernick, Bennett, Jenkins and Stills, have said they are trying to bring attention to the issue of racial injustice, particularly police interactions with black men.

Kaepernick was voted by his 49ers teammates in 2016 to receive an annual award for the player who most embodied “inspirational and courageous” qualities, but he parted ways with San Francisco in March and has since filed a grievance with the NFL over what he claims is collusion by owners to keep him out of the league. Kaepernick has recently received Sports Illustrated’s Muhammad Ali Legacy awardGQ’s ‘Citizen of the Year’ award and the ACLU’s Eason Monroe Courageous Advocate award.

Jenkins has come under criticism from some NFL players, including the Dolphins’ Thomas, for not communicating well enough with his peers while negotiating with the league and for effectively selling out the protest movement to a league that wants nothing more than to stop the demonstrations as soon as possible. He recently rebutted those accusations in a statement in which he said that “it was never about the money or having our voices bought,” adding, “To hear people call me or anyone else a sellout is insulting.”

“It has been my goal for the past two years to raise awareness about some important social injustices that plague our country,” Jenkins said. “The PEOPLE who have been unjustly disenfranchised by our criminal justice system and the PEOPLE who daily fight for them always have, and always will be, the inspiration and focus of my efforts.”

“It’s an honor to be able to be chosen with all your peers,” Bennett, whose off-field work includes initiatives aimed at combating obesity and expanding educational opportunities, said of his Man of the Year nomination. “I’m honored to get this opportunity to be a nominee for this organization, because there are so many guys who do so much work. It’s incredible.”

Here is the complete list of 2017 nominees:

Arizona Cardinals — Patrick Peterson
Atlanta Falcons — Ben Garland
Baltimore Ravens — Benjamin Watson
Buffalo Bills — Lorenzo Alexander
Carolina Panthers — Greg Olsen
Chicago Bears — Sam Acho
Cincinnati Bengals — Michael Johnson
Cleveland Browns — Randall Telfer
Dallas Cowboys — Travis Frederick
Denver Broncos — Chris Harris Jr.
Detroit Lions — Haloti Ngata
Green Bay Packers — Clay Matthews
Houston Texans — J.J. Watt
Indianapolis Colts — Darius Butler
Jacksonville Jaguars — Malik Jackson
Kansas City Chiefs — Alex Smith
Los Angeles Chargers — Casey Hayward
Los Angeles Rams — Rodger Saffold
Miami Dolphins — Kenny Stills
Minnesota Vikings — Kyle Rudolph
New England Patriots — Nate Solder
New Orleans Saints — Cameron Jordan
New York Giants — Mark Herzlich
New York Jets — Quincy Enunwa
Oakland Raiders — Bruce Irvin
Philadelphia Eagles — Malcolm Jenkins
Pittsburgh Steelers — Cameron Heyward
San Francisco 49ers — Bradley Pinion
Seattle Seahawks — Michael Bennett
Tennessee Titans — Wesley Woodyard
Tampa Bay Buccaneers — Clinton McDonald
Washington Redskins — Nick Sundberg

Three finalists will be selected in January by a panel that includes Goodell as well as previous winners, media representatives and corporate sponsors. The winner, in whose name $500,000 will be donated to charity, will be announced in February at an annual awards event the NFL holds the day before the Super Bowl.

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