Of course Malcolm Jenkins is the Eagles’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. There was no other choice. If justice is served, he will win the award Feb. 3.
Over the last two seasons Jenkins has been the clearest voice of the players’ efforts to address injustices. He has met with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, with city cops and politicians, with NFL owners and the commissioner. As a leader of the Players Coalition he secured a commitment of at least $89 million over the next seven years, the largest financial commitment to charity in league history.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick picked up two awards over the last month. Kaepernick spearheaded protests of racial injustices by law enforcement during the playing of the national anthem last season. He is the face of The Cause, but his protests and his platform might have cost him his career. No team signed him for the 2017 season. His closest allies have ended their affiliation with the Players Coalition.
These awards and this acrimony could not have come at a better time.
Just when the movement might be losing steam, Kaepernick’s dazzling smile and magnificent hairdo are everywhere.
Just after Jenkins secured the breathtaking pledge, his Eagles played on Sunday Night Football against the Seahawks, a team full of players dissatisfied with the coalition’s actions. Jenkins did not protest during the anthem. Nine Seahawks did. You’ve got photo ops and big money and a fascinating feud. It’s a Hollywood script come to life.
Kaepernick began sitting, then kneeling, 17 months ago in order to bring attention to police brutality and the systematic incarceration of black men in America.
He has your attention.
So does Jenkins.
It has not been a smooth road. As his controversial core beliefs became better known last year, Kaepernick became ever more reluctant to discuss the issues. He has since tweeted and Instagram-ed and sent missives through intermediaries.
Meanwhile, Jenkins and receiver Anquan Boldin formed and led the Players Coalition (Boldin retired in August). Along with about 40 other players, they eventually reached the negotiating table with the NFL and enlisted the league as a partner in their fight. The owners were reluctant partners, desperate to end the protests, but partners nevertheless.
As a result, the league pledged a truckload of what Jenkins says is new money — that is, not money siphoned from other causes. The pledge did not end the protests. In fact, the coalition’s negotiations and the pledge caused several players to renounce their involvement with the coalition.
Eric Reid, Kaepernick’s former teammate and his staunchest ally, led the revolt. Reid knelt again Sunday, one of several players who continued their protests.
This could not have worked out better.
By committing real money to these initiatives, the most powerful sports body in America both recognized that the problems exist and signed up to help solve them. By continuing to protest, Reid and his faction ensured that the pledges weren’t a payoff.
The most divisive, unresolved issue is the unemployment of Kaepernick, whose return to the NFL is what Reid cites as his No. 1 objective. In March, Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers, who told him he would be cut. He knew the NFL had a shortage of good quarterbacks and figured he’d get a job, especially as injuries inevitably shrank the ranks during the season. He was wrong.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross admitted Kaepernick’s toxicity outweighed his talent for many owners. In October, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the league, alleging the owners are colluding to keep him out of the league, but most experts don’t think he has much chance. The awards might be the last we hear of Kaep for a while.
Not so for Jenkins.
Jenkins is an eloquent speaker who understands the power of consistent, simple messaging and the destructive nature of rash symbolism; things like pig socks, Castro T-shirts, and refusing to vote in elections. Jenkins is willing to compromise.
Jenkins admitted last week that the $89 million is not a particularly large amount of money over seven years, but, he said, he is willing to take his progress in steps. Jenkins also said he believes the owners will move to ban anthem protests next season.
The Kaepernick faction is less specific in its immediate goals, one of several shortcomings that diminish its power. This isn’t good for Keapernick, but it’s good for The Cause. Righteousness cannot be diminished for some. Zealots never retreat.
Kaepernick has become a voiceless hero, a muted dissident, and an unmistakable trademark. He walks his own path, with his career martyred to his cause. At least now his words do no harm.
Even his honors carry baggage. GQ magazine named him citizen of the year, somewhat outrageously, since Kaepernick does not vote. Sports Illustrated gave him its Muhammad Ali Legacy Award, somewhat ironically, since Ali’s mouth was such a large part of his persona. Time magazine made Kaepernick a finalist for person of the year a year after the magazine chose Donald Trump, who has been among Kaepernick’s most virulent critics.
Kaepernick would not answer questions for GQ or SI. According to the reporters who wrote the stories, Kaepernick feared that his words would be twisted. But his words have not been twisted — not when he dismissed voting as a pointless exercise for the oppressed, not when he failed to condemn Fidel Castro, not when he wore socks depicting police officers as pigs, then explained that the pigs represented only “rogue cops.”
In his silence, and in his absence, he has been constructive.
Kaepernick’s website records where every dime of the $900,000 of the $1 million he pledged in October of 2016 is spent. We can hope the Players Coalition will be as transparent with how it spends its money. Kaepernick also helped raise $2.7 million for famine relief for Somalia in March by simply touting a GoFundMe page. He is a powerful symbol. Right now, Kaepernick serves The Cause better as a symbol than a spokesman.
Best leave that to Jenkins.
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