One after another, the reports gnawed at DeSean Jackson. Senseless killings. Lives snuffed out as a result of police brutality against unarmed African Americans. Lives cut short as a result of black-on-black violence.
The 29-year-old Washington Redskins wide receiver had conversations with people close to him, wondering what would put an end to it all. But he reserved those discussions for private settings — his home, on his phone with his brother in California, in the locker room with some of his teammates.
But finally, a month after San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision not to stand for the national anthem in protest, Jackson decided to take a public stance as well.
At MetLife Stadium in New Jersey on Sept. 25, just before the Redskins took on the New York Giants, Jackson, cornerback Greg Toler, tight end Niles Paul and wide receiver Rashad Ross stood in a row behind the rest of their teammates and coaches, heads down, right fists raised to the sky.
“It was just before the game,” Toler, an eighth-year veteran and native of the District, recalled. “Me, D-Jack and Niles were talking about it, and we said, ‘We don’t want to disrespect any of our armed forces or any of the men or women in blue, anyone that protects our well-being. But at the same time, we want to stand up for injustice.’ ”
The move drew some attention, but caused little stir.
At home against the Cleveland Browns the following week, Jackson donned a pair of custom-made cleats — sky blue with yellow police caution tape painted on; it looked as if the cleats were wrapped in the tape. The Redskins released a statement on behalf of the wide receiver and another statement expressing support for his desire to see senseless killings end.
Initially, Jackson intended only to wear the cleats during warmups. He wound up deciding not to raise his fist during the national anthem but kept the cleats on the entire game, aware it would draw a fine from the NFL in the neighborhood of $6,000. Jackson did get fined, but he said this past week, “it was worth it.” He didn’t appeal the punishment.
“I just felt like I was silent enough,” Jackson said after the game.
Asked about his motivations this past week, Jackson said, “Crisis in our society and community with the things going on, I just felt like my position, and the platform that we have as NFL athletes, there’s a stand that needed to be stood.
“Colin Kaepernick obviously started by doing it on the national anthem,” he continued. “But, I didn’t really want to be disrespectful to our service members and things of that nature. I’ve tried to take a different stand by raising my fist and not taking a knee, then that kind of raised eyebrows and people still thought it was a sign of disrespect. I really didn’t want to be a confusion, and I didn’t want to disrupt. But I wanted to do it in a time that people would notice it, and I think I did that. That’s where it starts.”
That image contrasts starkly from the portrayal of Jackson two years ago, when the Philadelphia Eagles released him following an outstanding season — 82 catches, 1,332 yards and nine touchdowns — and even though he had another three years and $30.5 million remaining on his contract.
According to reports out of Philadelphia at the time, the Eagles cut the speedy, 5-foot-10, 175-pound receiver because of fears about him setting poor examples for his younger teammates and because of his alleged affiliations with Los Angeles gang activity.
Those close to Jackson call those depictions inaccurate. Jackson did have a reputation for a fondness for the Los Angeles party scene. But locker room trouble-maker? Not in Washington, people familiar within the organization have said both privately and publicly. And Jackson has had no run-ins with the law.
Jackson’s social activism, those close to him say, is consistent with the person they know.
“It just shows how unselfish he is because he easily could go about his day and collect his check and not use his platform for anything or not even want that negative attention that speaking out brings,” said left tackle Trent Williams, one of Jackson’s closest friends on the Redskins. “It just shows how unselfish he is and how caring he is for other people. . . . So, I commend him for speaking his mind, and I commend anyone for speaking up and asking for a better place.”
Said Jackson’s older brother, Byron, “DeSean has always been a guy that feels strongly about right and wrong. He sees something not being done the right way, he’s not hesitant to voice his opinion. He’s passionate about that. I think being a smaller guy, or smaller player, he’s always had that mind-set of, ‘Look, my stature may be small, but I’m not backing down,’ and he’s like that in life, too.”
Those tendencies have something to do with the anti-bullying campaign that Jackson started in 2013 — he wrote a book on the topic — and preaching that message to children at his annual football camps.
Now Jackson has felt the urge to take on another problem area.
“I’m just tired of seeing caution tape, whether it’s black-on-black crime or police brutality, or whatever,” Jackson said. “I remember, growing up, someone was killed, or a shooting, or a violent crime, that’s what you saw. I wanted to raise awareness to that for it to stop. We need to find a way to stop that. That’s what my awareness was.”
Jackson said his desire to help spark change comes from a stronger source of motivation than seeing news reports or Kaepernick speaking out.
He became a father last year, and as his brother puts it, “fatherhood has definitely slowed him down, as it does most people, and he feels that sense of responsibility to his son.”
Jackson said, “I’ve got a son now, and I want him to grow up in a different community or different society from what’s going on now. I don’t want to see him or anyone close to me go through what’s going on now. There’s a lot of hashtag-RIP’s going around now. You don’t want to continue to see it. You want to put a stop to it. Let’s try to do it.”
Jackson hopes to soon begin hosting community outreach events to curtail black-on-black crimes and to unite civilians and law enforcement members in a partnership.
Jackson and his brother also are in the planning stages to introduce a number of school districts in the Los Angeles, Philadelphia and D.C. areas to an after-school program curriculum that they initially began discussing in 2009. They have spent the last several years refining it and introducing it to education officials.
“It’s a sports-based curriculum that also has an academic component,” said Byron Jackson, a college football wide receiver who spent two years in the Kansas City Chiefs organization and now works as a freelance editor for Fox Sports in Los Angeles. “Its core values center on five points — desire, dream, vision, believe and power — and it’s designed to teach character, ethics, help kids identify their passions and then help them pursue them.
“DeSean definitely knows he can have a strong impact because of his platform, and his gift of relating to kids. He just wants to help people make good decisions and never stop growing.”
The Jackson brothers declined to reveal the school districts they’re working with because the programs remain in the planning stages. But they hope to announce the localities later this year.
These efforts, according to the Jacksons, will ultimately have a greater impact than a raised fist during the anthem, or the caution tape cleats, which the wide receiver says he will not wear again.
“It’s a lot that can be said, it’s a lot of stances people can take. But you’ve got to take it a step further than that,” Jackson said. “Donating money, starting nonprofits, really attacking the cause of what’s going on. . . . Having the youth and a lot of other children out there, and wanting them to live in a society of peace and not all these killings. If you can save some lives. You might not save 100 right away, but if you can save 10 or 20, then as long as you can start somewhere, that’s doing something.”