The Philadelphia Eagles are at the pinnacle of the sporting world today after their Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots, but this team is as notable for their moves off the field as on it.
Players like Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, and Torrey Smith have been involved in various causes of social activism including education, prison reform, and improving police-community relations.
Jenkins, Long, and Smith have all had various programs and charities set up for years, including Long’s Water Boys foundation that focuses on bringing potable water to underserved areas of Africa.
But the political and social climate of the past year has encouraged these players to take their work further this season. Jenkins and Smith both raised their fists in a show of support for the Black Lives Matter movement while Long, who is white, put his arm around his teammates in a show of solidarity.
Last week, Smith spoke about the protest, he was clear to point out that these players aren’t protesting the anthem, rather certain conditions within the country.
“They call it the anthem protest. We’re not protesting the anthem. It’s a protest during the anthem. I understand why people are mad, or may be offended when someone takes a knee. My father, when he dies, is going to be buried with an American flag draped around his casket, being that he served in the Army.”
But these players aren’t just taking a public stand, they’re using their platform to speak with lawmakers and higher-ups in various spaces to push forward actual legislation.
In October, Jenkins, Smith, and Long went to the Pennsylvania state Capitol in Harrisburg to support “Clean Slate” policies that expunge “criminal records of those convicted of low-level, non-violent misdemeanors automatically sealed after ten years if they remain crime-free,” according to CBS.
Jenkins became the unofficial spokesman for the NFL’s Player Coalition, which was formed to bridge the gap between players and the NFL offices. When the coalition struck an $89 million deal with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to fund various causes, Jenkins suddenly had to defend his decision to work with the NFL in an open letter.
“Many of us – Doug Baldwin, Chris Long, Torrey Smith, Anquan Boldin, Rodney McLeod and others – have spent time in cities and towns talking with these people about these issues and pushing these legislators to right these wrongs. What we’ve learned is that this is not a Democrat or a Republican issue. It’s an American issue – and an American problem. That is why we are moving forward with our efforts in the Coalition, to drive forward initiatives, campaigns and advocacy efforts to force legislators to make this a priority.”
As attractive as extremism is in situations like these, sometimes a little diplomacy is in order.
Bunch compared Jenkins’ brand of activism to that of Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who has been blackballed from the NFL over his protests.
“In pro football’s justice wars, Kaepernick became the fiery but divisive Malcolm X while Jenkins was more of a Martin Luther King-style figure, not willing to compromise on his principles but willing to negotiate with the other side.”
Maybe the comparison is slightly hyperbolic, but Bunch’s point about the different strategies of activism remains.
Jenkins is specifically passionate about the issue of police reform and mass incarceration and he has familiarized himself with every aspect of the issue as part of his activism. He has ridden along with Philadelphia police, worked closely with the ACLU, and visited prisons to speak with inmates.
Jenkins accompanied Bill Cobb, a former inmate turned activist at the ACLU, to Graterford Prison, the same facility where Cobb was previously incarcerated.
The Eagles safety wrote about his experience in an article for The Philadelphia Citizen.
“Sitting with those inmates and meeting many others, you realize just how much potential we’ve just locked away. And then, when you read the research, it’s clear that our punitive system of justice raises the recidivism rate and damages people, making it harder for them to live in society when they get out.”
Cobb spoke to Will Bunch about Jenkins’ leadership.
“What I like about his leadership, is that Malcolm gets people to understand that their leadership is possible.”
As for Chris Long, who was motivated to get socially active after the white supremacist marches in his hometown of Charlottesville, the defensive lineman donated his entire year’s salary to various educational programs to help kids in underserved communities in the three cities he has played in, in St. Louis, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Long’s work was praised by President Barack Obama as an example of “what’s best about America.”
Chris Long gave his paychecks from the first six games of the NFL season to fund scholarships in Charlottesville, VA. He wanted to do more, so he decided to give away an entire season’s salary. That’s a story from 2017. https://t.co/NL0RoARkan
— Barack Obama (@BarackObama) December 29, 2017
Long also told the Pardon My Take Podcast last week that he would not be going to the White House if the Eagles won, saying, “No, I’m not going to the White House. Are you kidding me?”
It’ll be interesting to see how many of the Eagles do indeed show up to Trump’s crib. I’d take the under.