NFL Activism Explained: Malcolm Jenkins and Anquan Boldin on the Meaning Behind Anthem Protests
For players taking a stand, the message has always been more important than the method
PHILADELPHIA — You’ve seen the headlines: Malcolm Jenkins raises right first in the air during national anthem. Anquan Boldin retires from football to pursue humanitarian work.
But what about the reasons behind those actions? In the video above, and in their words below, both men are trying to shift the dialogue.
Over the past year, since Colin Kaepernick first took a seat during the national anthem, demonstrations by NFL players have evoked a range of emotions—and, based on The MMQB’s recent fan survey, among the most common has been outrage.
For players taking a stand, whether by raising a fist, taking a knee or a teammate’s arm, or even simply speaking out, the message has always been more important than the method. But along the way, that’s gotten obscured. Last Friday, in the City of Brotherly Love, Boldin, the former Cardinals, Ravens, 49ers and Lions receiver, and Jenkins, the veteran Eagles safety, sat down together to explain the why behind the protests. They have taken a stand in different ways, but their motivation is the same: They want to do their part to correct inequalities and injustices that they have both seen and experienced firsthand.
Those are more than words to them. Boldin’s cousin was shot to death by a plainclothes police officer after his van broke down on the side of a Florida highway in 2015 (the officer will go to trial this fall on manslaughter and attempted murder charges). Jenkins’ brother was convicted for marijuana possession as a juvenile after which he struggled to find work, until Jenkins helped him open his own recording studio in New Jersey. For the past year, while a hot debate has raged over anthem demonstrations, both men have worked together to fight for criminal justice reform.
Want specific examples? They’ve gone on two trips to Capitol Hill with fellow players, in November and in March, to speak with members of Congress and lobby for criminal justice reform. There, Boldin shared his cousin’s story. They led a social media campaign for a piece of legislation proposed by Senator Cory Booker that pushes for police transparency and accountability. In Pennsylvania, Jenkins has been working to raise awareness for the proposed Clean Slate Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow for offenders of nonviolent misdemeanors to have their records sealed after 10 years if they haven’t had any subsequent offenses. They have galvanized a Players Coalition, a group of approximately 40 players across the league, who communicate regularly and help each other to do grass-roots work in communities across the United States on specific criminal justice reform issues like ending the cash bail system and juvenile life without parole. Last Friday, Boldin was in Philadelphia for an event Jenkins hosted, a fashion show connecting his new clothing line, Damari Savile, to local non-profit MenzFit, which provides career counseling, job placement and work attire to low-income minority men.
Boldin has cousins who are police officers. Jenkins has nearly 20 family members who served or are serving in the military, including a grandfather who was awarded a Purple Heart in the Korean War. They are hoping you’ll hear and read their words and understand that they are not taking a stand that is anti-police, or anti-military, or anti-American—but rather, one that is for a stronger, more inclusive America.
JENKINS: We would rather not be demonstrating or protesting. The only reason that we feel it necessary is that guys have been doing work on their own in these areas, whether it be racial justice, social justice, criminal justice reform or civil rights. Athletes have been doing this work for a long time. We just don’t hear about it, and it doesn’t get the same kind of hype. That’s where these demonstrations are useful, because regardless of how you feel about them, they keep that conversation going. Guys have gone back and forth as to if it is effective or not, or if it’s a distraction, but there is the awful truth that if we just go and do the work silently, it doesn’t get the attention that it needs. So whether you think it is a protest or a demonstration, really, it doesn’t matter. As long as we are keeping these conversations going long enough to redirect some of that attention to the work, to the actual call to action, it’s worth it.
BOLDIN: I have always wanted to be involved, I just didn’t know how to get involved. My cousin’s death was, for me, pretty much a call to action. Seeing what my family was going through, what we are still currently going through at this point. Trying to get justice in a situation where we felt we had been dealt a raw deal, and not wanting to see anybody else go through that. I saw a lot of other guys in the NFL asking questions: How do I get involved? Where do I start? I had the idea of getting guys together and going to Capitol Hill because I had done some work with Oxfam America a couple years back. I had a chance to go with them to Ethiopia and to Senegal. In Senegal, they were dealing with this problem where locals were being moved out so foreigners could come in and mine the land for gold and other minerals, and they left it stripped. I had an opportunity to testify in front of Congress and get mining laws passed where locals had the power to say if they wanted their land mined on, and if they did, they got a certain percentage of the money. Having that experience, I felt what better way to bring everybody together to make a difference? And at the same time, showing guys how they can get involved, how they can use their voice, how they can use their platform to make a difference in today’s society.
JENKINS: Guys are protesting for a few different reasons, most of which have to do with the way that people of color and poor people in this country have been treated throughout history, whether that be through police brutality, whether that be through our criminal justice system, the educational gaps, the economic gaps—all of these things play a part into the narrative. There is no one issue that every guy is pushing for, but we are all fighting for the same stuff, and that is equality and justice, however we may go about it. I think there is a lack of a desire to listen. Most people get upset with the demonstration, not for what it stands for; in fact most times, I think they don’t even read or care about what it is, they just are upset at the gesture or the fact that it is during the national anthem. I try to challenge people that you should be just as upset that all of these things are happening in this country. What we are saying that this flag stands for, and justice for all, and the things in our constitution that we hold near and dear, are not being upheld. If you have true patriotism, those should be the things that get you upset and make you want to use that energy to speak out on the injustices that happen, not on the fact that somebody is using their constitutional right.
BOLDIN: The reason I didn’t [participate in an anthem demonstration] was seeing the way people took that and ran with it and never talked about the issues. I didn’t want to give people an excuse to not deal with the issues that we are dealing with. Because when people brought it up, the only thing they wanted to say was, Well, you are disrespecting the anthem, you are disrespecting the flag. But they never wanted to talk about why guys were taking a knee, why guys were raising a fist. And for me, that’s the message that I wanted to get out. This is why guys are protesting, this is why guys are taking a knee, or whatever guys are doing, this is why. I never wanted that message to get lost.
JENKINS: Even approaching this season, I wasn’t sure if I was going to continue the anthem protest or not. I tried to exhaust different options, but quite frankly, nothing else has been that effective. What I am trying to make a conscious effort to do is continue to point to solutions when a microphone is put in my face. Obviously, the visuals are going to be the demonstrations, people are going to see that, but if they listen to me or hear me, I am trying to talk less about the on-field demonstration and more about what is happening off the field and what can be done on their part, as well.
BOLDIN: Most people have wanted me to go back to football. Which is cool, but I think at this point, some things are just more important than football. I still love football. Football has afforded me an opportunity to take care of my family, to live out a dream, to meet people, to go different places I would never have been able to go. Football has been a huge part of my life. Giving that up isn’t an easy thing. But for me, there are more important things. I would rather us live in a country where there is freedom and justice for all than to be catching a touchdown. And like I told my wife, the America that I don’t want to live in, is Charlottesville. The America I do want to live in, is seeing how people respond to the victims of Hurricane Harvey. People of all races, all colors, all religions. You don’t care what a person looks like, what their beliefs are—I’m helping them, because they are my fellow brother, or because they need my help. That’s the America I want to live in. I don’t want to live in Charlottesville, where you hate somebody because of the way that they choose to live their life; you hate somebody based on the color of their skin; you hate somebody based on their race. That’s not a place where I want to live; that’s not a place where I want to leave my kids. For me, that’s why I am here doing what I am doing.
JENKINS: I’ve been working closely with Anquan for a year now, and his decision doesn’t surprise me. He is somebody that is directly affected by some of these issues; he has a close cousin that was unarmed and killed by an officer, and so some of these things are in his household and are not just something that he talks about. Being wrapped up in it, I can see how this can engulf you; it’s so deep and you see it in yourself, you see it in your communities, you see it in your family, that you want to really leave a lasting legacy. Changing communities and changing our country is going to last a lot longer than how many footballs you catch or how many touchdowns you make. I commend him on making that decision.
BOLDIN: I can remember being in the dorms at St. John Fisher [after signing with the Bills in early August]. The events in Charlottesville happened while I was there. There were nights where I just didn’t sleep. Just tossing and turning like, You gotta be kidding me. I had a Jewish friend call me, and he said, I can not believe what I am seeing. I would have never thought in a million years this would be the America I am living in, where you are seeing guys walk down the street with flags with swastikas on them, saying, Jews won’t replace us. He called me to vent, like, what am I supposed to think? How should I feel? I told him, well, it’s something us as African-Americans have been dealing with forever. We are at a point now where it is not just African-Americans. It’s Jews, it’s LGBT, you name it. We all have to face this. And I said to him, the only way we can defeat it is if we are standing together. So for me, there were some sleepless nights in the dorm, and it wasn’t about football. I don’t know if I have ever thought that much about something other than football at that time of year. It has always been, when training camp starts, I am locked in, I am focused in on the season, what I have to do to get prepared to make sure I am ready. At that point it was tough for me to just singularly focus in on football.
I called my wife. She was still in Florida; she and the boys had come up [to visit]. We were looking for places to stay; we shipped the cars; we shipped boxes; we were already in the process of moving to Buffalo. I just remember lying in the dorm room and thinking, there’s no way I can continue to play football. At this point, this is outweighing football. This is consuming my thought process; this is consuming me as a person. I am in meetings thinking about, how can I help with this situation? At that point, for me, it was time.
JENKINS: Visiting the Graterford State Correctional Institution earlier this year changed my perspective of what I thought jail was. Sometimes, we get numb to the fact that people get sent away. We don’t see where they are; we say they are “doing time,” and you really don’t know what that is. But to go walk through the facility, and to see the conditions and how you have to be stuck there, all of a sudden, the few hours that I was there, I couldn’t imagine being there for 25 years. And then to be able to sit down with six gentlemen, four of whom have been locked up since they were teenagers, all of whom have been incarcerated longer than I have been alive, I think that was a sobering moment. It changed my perspective. To be able to walk through the building with no security, and not have any issue at all, is a lot different than what they portray prison to be like, and a lot of men in there are completely different people than when they came there, in a positive way. One was incarcerated at the age of 14, and it’s 30-something years later. I think about what I was doing at the age of 14 and who I am now, and I’ve changed 10 times over. And to think that society is still afraid of these people, even though you can see that change.
BOLDIN: For us, when you talk about criminal justice reform, I think that’s a broad term. Unfortunately, when most people hear criminal justice reform, they hear us against the police, and it’s not that at all. We are more about bridging the gap between the two. I talk to a lot of policemen, and they are dissatisfied with the way things are now. They are dissatisfied with the divide between the communities and the police. The majority of policemen are hard-working, great citizens who put their life on the line for any of us, and that’s the reason they take the job. It’s just the few bad apples that distort the whole picture. For us, fighting for criminal justice reform is [ending] mandatory minimum sentences; it’s reducing recidivism for people that have gone to prison. When they come out, we want them to be able to be introduced back into society the right way. The rate of people going back to prison is very high, because we don’t give them opportunities when they get released. You can’t get fair housing, you can’t get a job, you don’t have an education. Those are some of the things we are fighting for. Juvenile lifers is another one; kids making mistakes at the age of 15 and having to pay for it the rest of their lives. There are a lot of issues we are dealing with as Americans that are just unfair, and there are a lot of prejudices we have to deal with. A lot of the laws we abide by now are targeting certain groups of people, and it’s a continual cycle. When you are talking about criminal justice reform, it’s the system as a whole, it’s not the community vs. police. That’s not it at all. But I think a lot of people aren’t educated enough to know exactly what we are fighting for.
JENKINS: We started a Players Coalition, and those conversations are happening from player to player, in group settings, conference calls, email blasts, and we are targeting specific areas, too. So when we are dealing with issues in Pennsylvania, we’re dealing with guys who play for the Eagles, play for the Steelers, Penn Staters, Pittsburgh, all of these guys that have Pennsylvania ties who can use their platform. Same thing with Louisiana, Ohio. As we build this coalition, we’ll operate as a collective whole on a lot of national issues and also be able to create these subgroups that get things done to the unique issues and challenges that are in separate communities. We know that every guy is not necessarily comfortable going to talk to congressmen, but some might want to sign an op-ed or a letter. Some might want to post articles on social media. There are a bunch of different ways to get involved, especially when you talk about the local or state level, because it is so unique to that demographic. We are able to really create a lane for guys to lend their platform and their voice.
BOLDIN: The connection between us has been that we are fighting for the same thing. I saw the demonstrations he had been involved in during the games. I was trying to get guys together who were like-minded. I put out a couple calls to different guys around the league who I knew held this issue near and dear, and then we got together and organized the trip to D.C. to go learn more about the issues that we were facing. We talked to senators and congressmen on both sides of the aisle. We tried to see how we could help. We have been given a platform, and we want to use that platform.
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This article originally appeared on Si.com