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Malcolm Jenkins, the new face of NFL player protests, says ‘We’re really just at the beginning’

“Me personally, I really want to get this conversation to move away from the anthem,” Malcolm Jenkins says. “I think it has served its purpose.” (Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — About midway through the national anthem before the Philadelphia Eagles’ final preseason game, the locker room opens and out walks the team’s strong safety: eyes forward, expression blank.

Malcolm Jenkins’s face is familiar, but even in the city that celebrated its first Super Bowl championship with a parade seven months ago, it is not famous. Jenkins wore dark aviators to the parade that covered his brown eyes, an Eagles beanie that concealed his thick eyebrows and a smile that was framed by a thick beard with a few gray strands.

But a new season is upon Philadelphia and the NFL, and Jenkins will once again play a leading role. For a third consecutive autumn, player protests are expected to cast a shadow over the action on the field, although for the first time neither of the movement’s founders — two years ago, former San Francisco 49ers teammates Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid began kneeling during the national anthem to bring attention to police brutality toward African Americans — is in the league to participate.

The league office and franchise owners will again try to shift attention away from the sidelines and back to the field as television ratings slip, the audience grows impatient and President Trump lands body shots against a league that once looked impenetrable. Around the time they find a solution for the issue, Jenkins says, it’ll be time for players to find an entirely new way to protest.

“Me personally, I really want to get this conversation to move away from the anthem,” he says. “I think it has served its purpose.”

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The statement is not a declaration of his intentions — he remained noncommittal on how he would approach the anthem this year, as the league’s policy remains on hold while owners and players’ union reps hold discussions — but it provides a window into Jenkins’s analytical mind, the one with which the league must now contend.

Jenkins is a 30-year-old captain and two-time Pro Bowl honoree for the defending Super Bowl champion, and the nerve center of a franchise whose locker room is as socially conscious as it is talented. He is motivated and creative when it comes to social issues, unafraid to deploy vulnerability and even silence — in June he staged a wordless news conference as he held a sign that read “YOU AREN’T LISTENING” — against what he considers the status quo.

So as the league begins a third season of the protests and players have — after two years of disagreement and clumsiness — started to find their collective voice, Jenkins brings a new and challenging weapon to the discussion: credibility.

Kaepernick, a former quarterback who once started in the Super Bowl, gave rise to the protest movement but has been almost reclusive over the past 18 months, appearing in public only a few times before being revealed this week as a centerpiece of a new Nike ad campaign.

Reid, with a willing voice and thoughtful demeanor, lacked the on-field bona fides — he was injured during much of last season and played for a team that hasn’t finished with a winning record since 2013 — and deferred too often to the behind-the-scenes wishes of Kaepernick, socially active players now say.

“They weren’t really organized and communicating with nobody,” says Josh Norman, a Washington Redskins cornerback who is involved with a group of mostly black NFL players that calls itself the Players Coalition. “[Jenkins] was one of those who had a better plan than what was going on. He had got the guys and officials to work with him on so many things, and that’s what we’re going with.”

Jenkins is a two-time Super Bowl champion still in the prime of his career. He prefers dialogue to silence, planning over kismet, compromise — and this hasn’t exactly brought Jenkins and Kaepernick closer — over endless conflict.

“He knows who he is and where he’s going,” Norman says of Jenkins.

Before the preseason game in Philadelphia, Jenkins is the last player to leave the locker room, and as the anthem is performed, he stops near a tunnel that leads to the field. As two security officials stand behind him with right hands over their hearts, Jenkins’s arms dangle and his eyes look forward.

“We’re really just at the beginning,” he will suggest of a movement he now leads, and as the singer finishes the anthem and applause fills the air, Jenkins heads into the tunnel and begins jogging forward.

Early lessons

Years ago they would load up the family’s Denali SUV with luggage and kids, and begin the trek from New Jersey to Virginia.

Lee Jenkins saw vacations as a chance to expose his kids to things he found culturally important, and if the youngsters were excited about the amusement park near Williamsburg, Va., their dad couldn’t wait for Carter’s Grove and the plantation’s preserved slave quarters.

“Where we started and where things are,” Lee Jenkins now says was the theme of at least three of his family trips. “And how much more we had to do.”

Sometimes the kids argued, and that was fun for Lee Jenkins, too. He was the driver on those trips, and when someone played The Notorious B.I.G., he’d talk over the song and wife Gwendolyn’s eye rolls, explaining how he didn’t understand hip-hop and that Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk were real musicians.

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The point, the 57-year-old software systems engineer now says, was not just to banter but also to teach his children that if they disagreed with something, they should say so.

Malcolm Jenkins preferred actions, even then. He didn’t like the empty promises of college football recruiting, so he avoided most of it. Ohio State asked him to stop by and run drills when he was visiting an aunt in Columbus, and after he blew the coaches away, he committed to the Buckeyes almost immediately, rather than wait and collect more scholarship offers.

On one of those trips to Virginia, Lee Jenkins regaled his family of the cultural significance of pork and collard greens, of the oppression he saw as a legacy of slavery, of the men and women who had carved their names into history by speaking out while others were silent.

Muhammad Ali spoke, Rosa Parks sat, John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised a fist, Lee Jenkins would explain. Occasionally he would glance in the mirror to see Malcolm staring through the window or dozing, and Lee couldn’t help but wonder if the young man was even listening.

Heeding calls to action

Two summers ago, Malcolm Jenkins noticed a trend in the news and names that would change his life: Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Sterling and Castile had become symbols of a bloody summer, both shot to death by police officers in July 2016. James and Anthony were NBA stars who, at the annual ESPY awards that month, issued a challenge for anyone with a platform.

“Let’s use this moment as a call to action for all professional athletes to educate ourselves,” James would tell the audience. “Speak up. Use our influence. And renounce all violence.”

Something inside Jenkins changed. He read about Ali and Martin Luther King and the Black Panthers, and the tumult of the 1960s reminded him of the present.

He paid attention when, that August, Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before an ex-Army Green Beret convinced him to take a knee. A decade earlier, Jenkins had found stardom and purpose at Ohio State, and if he had once tuned out his father’s impromptu calls to action, he embraced them in Columbus. He volunteered with at-risk kids, was the chaplain and stepmaster of his fraternity, dabbled in student politics and even surprised his dad with a playlist devoted to Thelonious Monk.

But it wasn’t until two years ago that Jenkins discovered his calling, and before the 2016 season he gathered a few teammates for a meeting with Philadelphia police to debate protocol and perspective. As the United States and its favorite sports league were coming to grips with Kaepernick — some viewed him as a symbol in the mold of Ali, while others saw him as a spoiled millionaire — Jenkins and two teammates stood at midfield before an Eagles game and raised their fists.

He tuned out boos from his own team’s fans and scrolled past angry tweets. He kept talking, or more precisely, kept listening — to police, to politicians, to family members, 38 of whom have served in the military, according to his father.

As Kaepernick opted out of his 49ers contract and essentially went silent, Jenkins kept working. He and Anquan Boldin, the former NFL wide receiver, founded the Players Coalition. He wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post. Jenkins and two teammates met with lawmakers to discuss criminal justice reform and to draft the Sentencing and Reform and Corrections Act of 2017. He championed a bill that would seal the criminal records of nonviolent offenders after 10 years, held forums that featured candidates for various cities’ district attorneys, considered unusual ways to capture the public’s attention.

“I do see that opportunity right now, at this point in history, where that next — or not that next leader, but those new leaders can come to the forefront,” says Jenkins, insisting that, for now, he has no political ambitions.

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He watched as the Players Coalition fractured and nearly crumbled, leading to a falling out with Kaepernick and Reid. Jenkins and Boldin were willing to work with the NFL and potentially end protests after the league pledged $89 million to charitable causes aimed at black Americans. Kaepernick, Norman says, simply refused to communicate when the coalition needed strong leadership most.

“When he took a knee, everybody was in shock and everything, but when the bullets start flying, I was trying to figure out where he was at. He was ducking,” Norman says of Kaepernick. “When you’re in the line of fire and the guys that are over here are trying to have a conversation to move stuff forward, he didn’t want to have that conversation.”

Jenkins suggests the Coalition is “firing on all cylinders” but that he hasn’t spoken with Kaepernick or Reid in nearly a year, saying he has reached out but has received no response.

“I’ve always kept my lines open,” Jenkins says, refusing to elaborate.

He has paid attention, however, as the founders of the NFL protest movement have — for debatable reasons — found themselves out of the league. He has followed as Kaepernick and Reid filed collusion grievances against the NFL, and listened as Trump called for protesting players to be “fired” or deported.

“I’m not worried about the backlash,” he says. “What we’re doing is too important.”

But back home in New Jersey, Jenkins’s parents do worry. Lee Jenkins wonders if his son needs a bodyguard. A while back he stopped asking his son if he receives death threats. He tries not to think about what happened to some of the figures he once told his son about.

Whether he realized it or not, Lee Jenkins was conditioning Malcolm back then.

“We can’t live in fear,” Lee Jenkins says. “He understands what needs to be done, and he understands the risk. He doesn’t have to be afraid to speak out. He’s not afraid.”

Overcoming his fears

But here’s the thing: Malcolm Jenkins is afraid. Sometimes he has trouble sleeping.

Back when he was a teenager, Jenkins asked a tattoo artist to scrawl “Fear No Man” on his left shoulder. It had little symbolism at the time, he says, but it does now. Indeed Jenkins is not afraid of his enemies, no matter their anger or their megaphone. His dread comes from within.

“My only fear; it’s the biggest fear I have in everything that I do: failing,” he says. “And not for failing’s sake or my own sake, but for other people.”

As a movement turns its eyes toward Jenkins, and with it a league and perhaps the Oval Office, he is all too aware of the stakes. A blown assignment might lead to more than a touchdown or even an Eagles loss. It could undermine his credibility, as it occasionally did with Reid, as a leader. A poorly chosen word or maladroit display, as when Kaepernick wore socks with cartoon pigs dressed as police officers and a T-shirt featuring Fidel Castro, could grant critics an opening.

“Those are things that keep me up,” Jenkins says, “to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to put my best effort forward and do what I think is right.”

Jenkins is a most thoughtful tactician, perhaps the voice players have been missing, but even the most gifted chess players make mistakes. Relying only on instinct, he cannot help but consider those he might let down.

“Fear, I think, is one of the things that hold back a lot of the people in my position,” he says. “Whether it’s fear of not being accepted, fear of losing endorsements, fear of the threats that will ultimately come.”

He shakes his head. He is uncertain what awaits in the coming months, on the field and off, but he believes he can overpower his fears and carry the movement forward. He believes he is ready.

“It is important for players in our position, especially African American members of society who have access to all this influence and capital, to fight against the powers that be,” he says. “Because us doing that symbolically also encourages everyday Americans to get involved. Because people look up to us for more than just football. If we’re fighting back, they’ll fight back.”

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