Do you think that just because the NFL season ended more than three months ago, just because the silent demonstrations during the national anthem have ceased for now, that activist athletes are done trying to enact necessary social change?
While Colin Kaepernick has gotten the lion’s share of attention for his herculean efforts to bring awareness to racial and social injustice in America, Malcolm Jenkins, who finished last season as the lone Eagles player raising his fist during the “Star Spangled Banner,” also continues to do work far from the spotlight of an NFL sideline. The movement has clearly evolved from simply taking a knee.
While Kaepernick has devoted his time and money to worthy causes that help veterans, immigrants, disadvantaged women, poor and hungry people, Jenkins has also gone above and beyond the polarizing anthem demonstrations to drill down into solving correctable problems.
His search for solutions has taken him into Philadelphia’s worst neighborhoods and behind the walls of Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison as he tries to gain an understanding of troubling mass incarceration realities, the broken relationship that exists between police and communities, and the education gap between rich and poor.
It’s taken Jenkins and NFL players like Anquan Boldin, Glover Quin, new Jets QB Josh McCown and Andrew Hawkins to Washington where they met with key lawmakers, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, last year to discuss criminal justice reform and race relations.
Jenkins and Boldin returned in March to attend the “NFL Players Speak Up: First-Hand Experiences and Building Trust Between Communities and Police” congressional forum.
“We’re here to use our leverage, our voices, to make sure that our families, our communities, our kids are a priority to the people here on Capitol Hill, to this administration, to the rest of our nation,” Jenkins told lawmakers on March 29.
His efforts have also taken Jenkins to the Super Bowl in Houston, where he participated in a town hall with RISE, a non-profit founded by Dolphins owner Stephen Ross that’s dedicated to using the power of sports to improve race relations and enact social change.
Jenkins spoke about the evolving role of activist athletes there.
It’s also taken him to the University of Pennsylvania’s Law Symposium, where he spoke about hate crimes and hate speech. In April, Jenkins spoke at Ohio State, his alma mater, about the role of athletes in social change.
In retrospect, it’s obvious that anthem protests were just a small but highly visible element of these players’ crusade to make the world a better place. The NFLPA recognized Jenkins with the 2017 Whizzer White Award, awarded to a player every year for excellence on and off the field.
“It’s really been important for me to educate myself on what is going on,” Jenkins told the Daily News. “When we started this thing, it was more about fatalities and the obvious things we saw across the country, the disconnect between law enforcement and communities, just the lack of trust.”
It’s bigger than that now.
Jenkins, who grew up in Piscataway, has done more than just raise a fist and give a few speeches. He recently initiated a visit to Graterford State Correctional Institution outside Philadelphia and met with inmates, corrections officials and the ACLU as he continues to unpack complicated issues and gain a better understanding of the problems he’s clearly committed to solving.
This is all part of what Jenkins calls “phase two” of the movement that Kaepernick started.
To gain an understanding of where Jenkins and other athletes like Kaepernick are going with this, it’s helpful to look back at where it all started.
“It came from a place of being fed up,” Jenkins said.
He recalled the bloody week in July last year, when, getting ready for training camp, he was rocked by the twin killings by police on consecutive days that cut down Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castille in Minnesota. Then came the revenge killings of five Dallas cops as the nation appeared to arrive at a breaking point.
“It was that point where, ‘Alright this is enough,’” Jenkins said. “I felt that everyone needed to do something and that included me. When I started, I didn’t know where to begin, but I knew I had to at least start.”
It began on the sidelines. Kaepernick knelt during the anthem for the first time during the preseason. Soon Jenkins and other NFL players followed. By mid-season, as many as 35 players waged some form of silent demonstration, either kneeling or raising a fist like John Carlos and Tommie Smith did at the 1968 Olympics during the national anthem to bring awareness to racial inequality and police brutality.
Realize there are more than 1,600 NFL players. The anthem protesters were in the extreme minority.
While there was some support for the movement, there was also a staggering backlash. Brandon Marshall’s jersey was burned in effigy in Denver. Kaepernick was angrily booed and received death threats. NFL ratings dipped. All these months later, Kaepernick is still vilified for starting the movement, his actions perceived by some as disrespectful to the flag, the military and the country.
The blowback was expected.
“If you know anything about the issues in our country, you know we have a lot of deep-rooted anger and anxieties that spark a lot of passion,” Jenkins said. “When you talk about our national anthem or the flag or race relations or the criminal justice system, it brings up a lot of those fears and insecurities. I think we understood the backlash was going to be huge, whether you’re for it or against it. It’s just kind of the times that we’re in.”
Haters be damned. The protests continued. They trickled down to college, high school and even Pop Warner football sidelines. A youth team of 11- and 12-year-olds in Texas participated in the anthem protests and received death threats. Their season was cancelled.
But simply kneeling for a song was never going to change anything.
The real work is taking place now, far from the field.
Since October, Kaepernick has donated more than $ 500,000 to community organizations and charities that assist military veterans, immigrants, Native Americans, poor and hungry people. He sent $ 50,000 to both Meals on Wheels — in defiance of the funding cuts proposed by President Donald Trump — and aided an effort to fly food and water to starving people in Somalia.
While Kaepernick’s work has been highly publicized because of who he is, by comparison, the work Jenkins has been doing has gone largely unnoticed. But it is equally important. An example of this came recently when Jenkins and Eagles teammate Steve Means visited Graterford, a 100-year old prison, to gain a better understanding of the effects of the racial injustice they’ve been demonstrating against.
In many ways, Graterford is ground zero for these problems. It’s where the racial challenges that our nation faces are personified under lock and key.
“I’ve never been in a correctional facility,” Jenkins said. “It was my first time and it was pretty eye opening. You understand it from what you hear and what you read, but we actually go behind the wall and see the facility and it changes your mind of what time really looks like. It was important for me to hear from them directly what the challenges are in their communities, behind the walls, as well as in general society.”
Racial injustice impacts communities well before inmates arrive at Graterford. In many ways they are destined for a life behind bars and their sentences are handed down years before they ever put on a maroon jumpsuit.
“Corrections reform starts in the community and that’s a role athletes can play greater than anyone,” Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel said.
According to the state Department of Corrections, education plays a primary role in whether young, black kids grow up to be inmates. The statistics are jolting. In Pennsylvania alone, one in 50 black residents are incarcerated, compared to one in 505 white residents, according to the DOC. Drilling down even further, one in 28 black males are locked up and one in 14 young black men, between the ages of 20 and 34, are behind bars. This is right about the national average.
Between 1970 and 2005, the American prison population grew by 700%, the product of the so-called war on drugs. It’s not difficult to see which communities the surge impacted the most: poor minorities.
“If we want people to get out and not commit another crime, we have to reverse-engineer it and understand why they came in,” said Wentzel, a corrections reformer. “Fifty percent of everybody who comes in doesn’t have a high school diploma, so education (is important). Coupled with education, marketable job skills. Sixty-five percent suffer from a substance abuse disorder. We have to address the addiction. Twenty-eight percent, mental illness. So it’s a variety of things. There’s no silver bullet.”
While black men make up only 6% of the country’s population, black males make up more than 40% of the country’s prisons, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
“The good news is I think we’re making progress,” said Wentzel, who credits the slow progress to the work being done by “athletes and celebrities like Malcolm Jenkins stepping up to understand the issues in a real way” and “doing something about it to use their position or their stature to help move the needle on an important issue.”
In 2014, state and federal prison populations both declined for the first time since the government started tracking the numbers in 1978.
The Pennsylvania state prison population is less than 49,000 for the first time in a decade, Wentzel said.
Lost in the reams of incarceration data are the many young lives impacted by the epidemic: One in seven kids living in poverty have a parent incarcerated and one in nine black children have a parent in jail, according to U.S. prison statistics. That’s where education comes into play, that’s where early-childhood programs and pre-K for all kids will help to stem the tide even further, Wentzel says.
“We know that kids who are reading at grade level by third grade are more likely to graduate than those who don’t,” Wentz said. “A young black man in Pennsylvania who drops out of school has a 70% lifetime chance of being incarcerated. So it really starts there.”
These are the very issues the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation works to improve through community initiatives like its Next Level Football Camp, the Get Ready Fest food drive, and the Project R.E.W.A.R.D.S. scholarship program. But athletes alone cannot and will not solve these problems. They can only start the conversation.
“The biggest things I have are the platform that I have and influence,” Jenkins said. “What I want to do is educate as many people as possible because right now a lot of people don’t know. I was included in that. Last July, I didn’t have an idea of how the criminal justice system works. Without that knowledge, it basically becomes someone else’s problem. As long as it’s not my problem, I can justify me not getting involved.
“My biggest thing is getting as much information as I can and educating the masses so we don’t see this as an urban or inner city or black problem, but we just see this a something that everyone feels needs to be changed,” he said. “When everybody takes it on as their problem, then we can actually get the problem changed.”
The first step was kneeling. And boy, that got people’s attention. But now action is the next phase. Donations. Awareness. Education. These are merely baby steps toward repairing epic challenges.
Kaepernick pledged to stop his anthem protests next season. He’s currently an unsigned free agent and some felt that ditching the sideline protests was him selling out the cause he inspired. Jenkins is among several players who think Kaepernick’s been blackballed by NFL teams and the protest is very much behind his current unemployment. As for Jenkins, who remains a fan favorite in Philadelphia despite his being so outspoken, he’s not sure if he’ll continue to raise his first during the anthem.
“I put no thought into protest for this upcoming season,” he said. “I put my focus on actually doing the work, and I think the next phase in this whole thing is putting foot to pavement. A lot of people criticized the protests last year and their point was ‘It’s easy to demonstrate, but nobody’s doing anything with those demonstrations.’
“I think now that (Kaepernick’s) actually transitioning to actually doing things, that’s getting a lot less coverage than his actual protests.”
Kaepernick has done his share. So has Jenkins. But will more NFL players follow? Will more athletes get involved?
That remains to be seen. The NFLPA was not able to produce evidence of other players making a difference. While it may be happening in drips, the union has not been able to track their efforts with much depth. So for now, a very small minority of NFL players can be tracked. Kaepernick, Jenkins, and Boldin are doing excellent work.
“The more that I learn about what’s going on,” Jenkins said, “it’s really hard to ignore the oppression that people are actually going through.”
The oppression is real. But so is the evolving effort to alleviate some of it.
The more they work, the more these athletes learn and talk about the issues, the harder they are to ignore.
And that’s the whole point.