BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — It was an NFL season that was about so much more than football. It was about players’ protests during the national anthem, about President Trump’s sharp criticism of those protests and the league’s reaction to pressure applied by the White House. It was about players using their stature and their voices and forging a partnership with the league on issues related to community activism.
The embodiment of much of that activism is Malcolm Jenkins, the Pro Bowl safety for the Philadelphia Eagles who became a prominent leader of the players’ efforts and now will participate in the season’s final and biggest game as he readies for Sunday’s Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
So it is only fitting that with Jenkins under the sport’s brightest spotlight, he is spending his week answering questions on topics that range from defending the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Tom Brady to the attempt to turn the players’ protest movement into progress on initiatives of social justice and racial equality.
“Oftentimes, even myself as I’ve come through my entire career from high school all the way up here, everything has been football, football, football,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “And then you realize that life is much bigger than this game, especially when you start thinking about life after football and what you want to leave behind. And you can do that while you’re still on this stage.”
Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin are the leaders of the Players Coalition, the group that reached an agreement with the league in November for the NFL and teams to provide about $89 million through 2023 to support community-activism endeavors.
The accord came after Trump said at a speech in September that owners should fire players who protest during the anthem, intensifying a national controversy about patriotism and the protest movement begun in 2016 by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the anthem before games to bring attention to racial inequality in the U.S. and police treatment of African Americans.
Owners declined at a meeting in October in New York to enact a rule requiring players to stand for the anthem. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and some owners said then that they wanted players to stand but weren’t prepared to require it. They were focused instead, they said then, on their discussions with the players about the pending social justice accord.
Goodell reiterated that position Wednesday when asked in downtown Minneapolis at his annual state-of-the-league news conference about the possibility that the owners will act during the offseason to change the league’s anthem policy for next season.
“I think our focus is going to continue on building the platforms that the owners and players spent a great deal of time and unprecedented dialogue creating,” Goodell said. “I think we’re excited about that.”
It was Jenkins and the Players Coalition, not the NFL Players Association, that had the central role in the deliberations with Goodell and the owners on the topic. Fractures showed on the players’ side when 49ers safety Eric Reid, who’d protested alongside Kaepernick in 2016 and continued those protests this past season, and other players withdrew from the Players Coalition and said it no longer spoke for them. Even so, it was clear that Jenkins had emerged as a leader on the players’ side.
“I didn’t realize that the platform could be this big until Colin Kaepernick first took a knee,” Jenkins said Wednesday. “When he did that, that was kind of an ‘aha’ moment for me. I’d already been doing work in the community. … But when it comes to how to actually amplify your voice, when I saw what Colin Kaepernick did and the amount of coverage and conversation around it, that’s when I truly realized how much influence we have as athletes. … That was one of the driving factors for me to try to organize and try to encourage athletes to get out in their community and learn about issues, educate themselves.”
Eagles teammate Chris Long said last week that the efforts of Jenkins and others have demonstrated that players are able to successfully manage their time to be socially aware and active in such charitable endeavors without having their on-field performance suffer. Jenkins said Wednesday he’d never experienced any pushback from the Eagles organization about what he was doing.
“I haven’t had any issues with what I’ve been doing for the last two years,” Jenkins said. “The team and my teammates have been very, very supportive of it. I think the majority of that comes because of the rapport that I’ve had with them before, all of that, for them to know me, to know what my passions are, to know what I am in the locker room, know what I am in the community.
“I don’t think anybody’s surprised at what’s going on. … It’s to the point now where we’re encouraged to get out and get in the community and do these things. I think hopefully we can be an example to guys in the league or young guys getting ready to enter the NFL that when you have this whole platform, you can use that platform to do some great things outside of the field and still be a great player.”
The league and players said throughout their deliberations there was no agreement, explicit or implied, that a deal on a social-justice platform necessarily would result in all players standing for the anthem. It was clear that some owners hoped such an agreement would lead to players voluntarily standing. But it was not a requirement, both sides said.
There now is a committee of owners and players overseeing the “Let’s Listen Together” initiative by the league and players. But the anthem issue has not disappeared. Trump made a mention during Tuesday night’s State of the Union address about standing for the national anthem. He did not specifically mention the NFL or players. Goodell was not asked about that during Wednesday’s news conference. But he was noncommittal when pressed on whether the owners might decide during the offseason to have players remain in the locker room next season until after the anthem is played before games.
“I don’t know what we’ll consider in the offseason,” Goodell said. “I’m still trying to get through the Super Bowl. We’ll turn our attention to the priorities in the offseason.”
Meanwhile, Jenkins and the Eagles will try to secure a Super Bowl championship. It would be the second career Super Bowl triumph for Jenkins, who won the first as a Saints rookie in the 2009 season.
“I’ve been thinking about that since I arrived in Philly,” Jenkins said. “I know what that looks like when I was in New Orleans. I saw what it meant to that city. … To have that taste of victory, yeah, I contemplate that a lot.”