Players Coalition Address Social Justice Issues
NFL players use their influence to make change
By Jarrett Bell
When Anquan Boldin and Malcolm Jenkins founded the Players Coalition in 2017, there was no way they could have projected that less than three years later their organization would aid efforts to deal with a global health crisis. The Players Coalition, a group consisting of more than 100 current and former NFL players, has largely made its mark in fighting for social justice initiatives.
One of the group’s key initiatives involves criminal justice reform, including bail reform, voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, standards for jury convictions, guidelines for cases that involve juveniles, and other issues. By collaborating with the NFL in April to donate more than $3 million to aid Black communities disproportionately affected by COVID-19, the Players Coalition illustrated just how nimble of a force it has become.
Then again, scarce resources, economic strife, substandard schools, and other disparities in many minority communities beg for social justice, too. Such disparities — evident during the pandemic — have been institutionalized in American society.
“In the overall aspect, it’s caring for people,” said Boldin, who committed himself to social justice issues upon retiring in 2017 after 14 seasons as an NFL wide receiver. “For me, that’s what social justice is. That’s what police-community relations is. That’s what educational equality is. All of it is about people; making sure that people are taken care of, especially those who don’t have a voice, who don’t have the resources.”
As Boldin alluded to, the Players Coalition was established on three pillars: 1) education and economic advancement, 2) criminal justice reform, and 3) police and community relations. During the first two years of the coalition’s existence, the bulk of its events, contributions, and energy fit within the defined pillars. Yet, as the coronavirus pandemic spread, Boldin and fellow board members were quick to push the NFL to divert the money that carried over from last year’s social justice funding to be put to work immediately to assist in Black communities. The NFL has pledged to commit at least $90 million over 7years to Players Coalition efforts combating social inequality.
In Black communities devastated by the pandemic, for example, the NFL and Players Coalition directed more than $3 million to aid nonprofit organizations and health-care systems, including hospitals. Funds were sent to seven markets — Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Florida, Louisiana, and Washington, D.C. — hit hard by COVID-19. Boldin said it was important for the Players Coalition to react because they believe that the disproportionate rate of deaths for Africa Americans and other people of color in many locations reflects systematic inequalities that exist in so many areas of society.
“It exposes everything that we’ve already known,” he said.
Boldin, whose grandmother recovered from a bout with COVID-19, became frustrated during the early stages of the outbreak as he was unsuccessful in trying to secure coronavirus tests for people in his hometown of Pahokee, Fla.
“You talk about health care in minority communities; we all know there’s a lack of health care available,” he said. “You see these communities that are underserved, from an educational standpoint and on and on. And those things are happening without COVID. [The coronavirus] exposes stuff we’re fighting for on an everyday basis.”
There is no shortage of issues that the Players Coalition has been willing to address as it evolves into a viable conduit for community service and political action. In many cases, the group is doubling down to enlist the support of the league and its respective teams. Consider the following actions:
Jenkins, a veteran safety who rejoined the New Orleans Saints this year after six seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles, strongly advocated for transparency and accountability in 2019 as the city of Philadelphia began searching to replace its controversial police chief.
Several Eagles and Pittsburgh Steelers players lobbied for the Clean Slate Act in Pennsylvania. Signed into law in 2018 by Governor Tom Wolf, the act places records under seal regarding non-violent misdemeanor convictions that are 10 years old or older.
New England Patriots safety and co-captain Devin McCourty wrote an op-ed column with team owner Robert Kraft and team president Jonathan Kraft that supported juvenile justice reform in Massachusetts. Several Patriots players then lobbied state lawmakers for a bill that Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law in 2018 with new juvenile justice provisions.
New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis campaigned for a law passed in 2018 that wiped out the “10-2” system in Louisiana that allowed for felony convictions with only 10 of 12 jurors voting guilty. Louisiana was one of only two states that allowed for a felony conviction without a unanimous jury verdict. The 10-2 system was believed to be an underlying reason for the state’s high ranking for the number of wrongful convictions ultimately overturned. Also, in 2018, Davis and since-retired tight end Ben Watson rallied behind a bill that passed to restore voting rights for the formerly incarcerated on probation or parole in Louisiana.
The swath of initiatives carried under the banner of the Players Coalition has been wide and relentless. During an era where the polarization of America has become more pronounced with distinctions often falling along political, economic and racial fault lines, it has been refreshing for social activists and other interested parties to witness the proactivity of a group that has not always been so inclined. This is clearly a new era when it comes to athlete activism. Collectively, the members of the Players Coalition have demonstrated the power that professional athletes possess to leverage their status, resources, connections, platforms, and yes, desires, to help fill voids and wield influence.
“There is obviously power in numbers, right?” Jenkins said during an interview with The Crisis. “You hear that cliché your entire life. But the other side of that coin, which a lot of people don’t talk about, is that it’s hard to organize. Especially for guys with entirely different schedules, families, charitable things, all across the country, in different time zones. Even just having meetings and conference calls requires a lot of engagement and sacrifice for us to all be on the same page. But guys care enough about it to make it work,” Jenkins continued. “When we’re doing things together, pooling resources, we’re pooling influence. You have a lot more bass in your voice when you start to speak, and you know you’ve got other players with just as much clout and respect behind their names, speaking right with you.”
What a striking departure from the general approach that most pro athletes held for the better part of two generations since the 1960s. It is no longer taboo for athletes to take a strong stand on social issues. Although there may still be resistance among some team owners who would prefer that the NFL stage is not used as a platform for such messages, the Players Coalition illustrates how far players have advanced in exhibiting their social awareness.
More than 70 percent of the players in the NFL are African American, yet only in recent years has that group (and their peers in other major sports) raised its voice strategically to push for social change.
The Players Coalition, which doesn’t have a full-time staff, uses independent contractors for management, public relations, research, event staging, and other functions. It partners with several established organizations in the social justice arena, which boosts credibility in its messaging. And by affiliating with many grass-roots entities, the group maintains a pulse on specific issues. Players from different teams in different markets, typically take the lead on various initiatives, while supported from other members of the Players Coalition elsewhere.
“I applaud the Players Coalition for, No. 1, raising social issues that go beyond them as individuals,” said Rod Graves, executive director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a watchdog group that monitors and promotes diverse hiring of coaches and executives in the NFL. “And they seem to speak about it with a passion. Also, they were willing to upset the business model of the league in order to bring attention to these issues.”
Of course, it all started with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick dared to kneel during the playing of the national anthem, rather than stand as is customary, to protest the shooting deaths that year of unarmed African Americans by white police officers, along with other societal inequities.
Kaepernick paid a tremendous price. He’s effectively been blackballed from the NFL, unable to land a job despite a dearth of talent at the quarterback position and a resume that includes leading a team to the Super Bowl.
Even so, Kaepernick ignited a game-changing shift of historical proportions as other NFL players joined in with national anthem protests, while NBA players and athletes from other sports likewise protested their discontent. And while only a handful of NFL players protested during the early stages of the 2017 season (with Kaepernick out of the league), Donald Trump reignited the movement with his harsh criticism of protesters, virtually all of them Black, and erroneously cast their purpose for political purposes.
The shift that Kaepernick created encouraged other NFL players to speak up about injustice. The Players Coalition was an opportunity for these players to work on behalf of their communities.
“We understood very quickly, right after Colin took a knee and all the hype around it, that not only did Colin feel very strongly about it, but there were a bunch of guys around the league that are very, very passionate, that were looking for ways to get involved that had never been presented before,” Jenkins said. “We wanted to create a vehicle for guys to get educated on issues in their respective markets and then give them a vehicle to actually create change, to do it collectively, to blow it up as much as we can.”
Still, the fact that Kaepernick has never had any role with the Players Coalition while the group has engaged in a partnership with the NFL fuels suspicion and scrutiny.
Kaepernick was invited to participate with the Players Coalition as it was established. However, given the sticky circumstances, he refused to engage, despite the similar concerns about the inequities in society. (Kaepernick, incidentally, donated $100,000 to COVID-19 relief efforts and tweeted about the disproportionate deaths of African Americans and other minorities.)
Veteran safety Eric Reid, a close friend who knelt alongside Kaepernick as a 49ers teammate in 2016, accused the Players Coalition of “selling out” during meetings with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and several team owners, when the deal to partner with the league was forged. Reid was the most vocal critic, but several other players joined him in renouncing their membership in the Players Coalition just weeks after it was formed.
There were allegations that the NFL money for social justice programs was tied to ending the national anthem protests. But Jenkins has repeatedly denied those allegations and maintains that he’s still willing to work with Kaepernick.
“That door, on my end, has always been open,” Jenkins said of Kaepernick. “If at any point in time there’s an opportunity to work on something, I won’t hesitate on that, if I believe in it,” he added. “What I’ve accepted is that we have different philosophies and ideas on how to get to the same place, but I also recognize that we’re trying to get to the same place.”
It’s hard to imagine, however, that Kaepernick would join the Players Coalition at this point, given its ties to a league that hasn’t had an NFL team willing to sign him to play.
Beyond that, when music mogul Jay-Z joined forces with the NFL in 2019 to bolster its social justice agenda and to create entertainment projects, he took an apparent swipe at Kaepernick by declaring, “We’ve moved past kneeling.”
That’s exactly what the Players Coalition has done for more than two years — and it can’t be knocked for that.
During the first two years of its existence, the Players Coalition recorded 83 public service announcements, authored 32 op-ed columns, had 8 legislative bills passed that it lobbied for, and hosted 79 events and town hall meetings.
The NFL, meanwhile, works arm-in-arm with the Players Coalition and has marketed its social justice efforts under a campaign dubbed, “Inspire Change.” Heading into 2020, the league and its charitable foundation, in conjunction with the Players Coalition, donated more than $25 million over two years in social justice grants. The league boasts that in 2019 alone, NFL teams hosted or participated in more than 500 social justice events, including ride-along excursions with police and listen-and-learn sessions with elected officials.
Still, for all the contributions, it remains strange that Kaepernick — who ignited the social justice awareness — has no association or job within the NFL.
Boldin, though, while not diminishing Kaepernick’s legacy, will tell you that there’s been an institutional shift with the NFL in addressing social issues that resonate with its large base of African-American players. Three years ago, Goodell wouldn’t even use the words “police brutality” in a written statement or press conference remarks pertaining to the concerns of the players.
Yet, fast-forward to the broadcast of Super Bowl LIV in February. The NFL’s logo was displayed as the sponsor for a 60-second PSA built around a narration by Boldin that detailed the shooting death of his cousin Corey Jones in 2015 by a plainclothes police officer in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., as he waited by his disabled car in the middle of the night. That tragedy, Boldin stated, prompted him to co-found the Players Coalition to affect change.
“I’ve never seen an entity as big as the NFL make a statement on one of the biggest platforms in the world,” said Boldin, referring to a telecast that averaged 102 million viewers. “To see them step up that way and be unapologetic about it, that speaks volumes.”
The Super Bowl LIV commercial reflected one of the more conventional ways for the Players Coalition to get out specific messages. An unconventional blast came from Jenkins during the spring of 2018, after Trump abruptly canceled his invitation for the Super Bowl champion Eagles to visit the White House (after several players indicated they would not attend). Jenkins stood in front of his stall in the Eagles’ locker room after practice and responded to various questions by displaying hand-written posters with facts that addressed inequalities in the criminal justice system that disproportionately affected minorities.
One sign read: “In 2018, 439 people shot and killed by police (thus far). In U.S. pop 8% = African-American males. Shot by police 25% = African-American males.”
Another read: “ANY GIVEN NIGHT, 500,000 SIT IN JAIL. CONVICTED? NO. TOO POOR? YES. #ENDCASHBAIL.”
It was a brilliant use of his platform as Jenkins — typically a popular source for reporters, giving thoughtful comments about football and social issues — refused to answer questions and opted instead to stage a “silent” press conference for several minutes.
Jenkins, who was at the forefront in pushing for Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Act, joined several teammates for a meeting with lawmakers at the state capitol in Harrisburg, the day after playing a Monday night game in Philadelphia. He maintains that generally the reception he receives from lawmakers and other officials while advancing the cause of social issues has been encouraging.
“So, it becomes a thing, maybe a little bit of the politics, but also how do you put pressure on the people who can make those changes?” asks Jenkins. “So, if there’s an elected official who has the power to vote, or the guy you’ve got to swing, how do you put pressure on him? When we show up, we know what we’re talking about and we usually show up with cameras. Nobody can smile in our face and then vote another way.”
The most significant brushback Jenkins says he’s received since establishing the Players Coalition came from a Philadelphia police union official in the form of an op-ed column that essentially charged that the football player pushing for accountability with police needed to stay in his lane.
“There are obviously people whose best interests are on the opposite end of the spectrum for what we’re trying to get accomplished,” Jenkins said. “There are people who have a vested interest in keeping our prison system the same, in keeping laws hard on crime, all these sorts of things,” he added. “The one thing we haven’t run into is an elected official — Republican or Democrat — or a police chief, who doesn’t believe that we have issues, especially when it comes to race, disparity, and the facts that we talk about. Those things can’t be disputed.”