Kaepernick Controversy Has NFL Players Searching for Louder Voice in Society

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterJune 29, 2017

Tiffany Smith (Courtesy RISE)

If you thought political activism among NFL players ended with the shunning of Colin Kaepernick, you couldn't be more wrong. 

"What Colin Kaepernick did is just the spark," Eagles defender Malcolm Jenkins said Monday. "What's coming after that is going to be a bigger wave, a more collective and concerted effort to use this platform of sports to try to make some change."

That's not idle talk. Political activism in football, and across sports in general, is about to become better organized, informed, directed and supported. It will become impossible to ignore or marginalize. The groundwork is already in place. The small circle of "activist athletes" is about to grow considerably.

While he bristles at the title, Jenkins has become the NFL's ranking "activist." He's certainly the busiest. Jenkins was in New York on Monday, speaking at the Hashtag Sports leadership conference. Last week, he was in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, lobbying state lawmakers to reject the rollback of a prison-reform bill. Prison reform was also the topic of an op-ed piece Jenkins co-authored with Anquan Boldin and Lions defenders Glover Quin and Johnson Bademosi in early June; Jenkins and Boldin headlined a group on NFL players who lobbied for the same cause in Washington in March.

Jenkins outlined his strategy to spread the word about prison reform and other social-justice causes at Eagles OTAs in June. "There are different ways to communicate and put pressure on those who make decisions," he said at the time. "We've been to Capitol Hill a couple of times. We're writing op-eds. We're doing interviews. It's just another part of our effort to educate the masses on what's going on."

There are others on the NFL's activism circuit: Bolden, Quin and Bademosi, Michael Thomas (whom we will hear from in a moment), Michael and Martellus Bennett, Brandon Marshall and more. But the same dozen names pop up whenever the NFL crosses paths with politics—especially "controversial" topics like prison reform or police brutality.

But what happens when the Jenkins-Boldin-Bennett generation of NFL activist ages out of the NFL? Will anyone take their place? Younger players must be a little nervous about speaking their minds now that Kaepernick is either being strategically blackballed from the NFL or subjected to a unique and unprecedented set of employment obstacles that apply exclusively to him (which is precisely how strategic blackballing works).                    

Jenkins and the handful of the NFL's outspoken social advocates are not doing it all by themselves, however. A new generation of informed, emboldened athletes is just about to arrive.

"There are many more players than people realize who want to be active and use their platform to advocate for a better world," Jocelyn Benson, the CEO of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality (RISE), told B/R. "We're just beginning to see the opportunities to inspire and train the next generation of athletes."

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross founded RISE in 2015. The initial plan was to work behind the scenes, supporting educational initiatives and community-level programs to improve race relations and other social inequities. As the national climate changed, RISE found itself becoming more upfront and hands-on.

RISE now acts as a support network for activist athletes, helping the out-front types like Jenkins connect with newcomers who want to get involved. "Our goal is also to encourage them to support one another so we don't have an instance where an athlete feels they are out there taking the heat on their own," Benson said.

RISE has also instituted an ambitious educational program at major universities around the country. The program helps coaches and players learn "leadership skills through the lens of race relations," according to Benson. Young players who want to get more involved can then enroll in additional RISE-sponsored programs, some of which will prepare them to speak at town hall meetings or meet with lawmakers.

Dr. Jocelyn Benson, Michael Bennett and Brandon Marshall at a RISE event during Super Bowl week.
Dr. Jocelyn Benson, Michael Bennett and Brandon Marshall at a RISE event during Super Bowl week.Tiffany Smith (Courtesy RISE)

Not every athlete with a hunger for social justice is cut out to be a firebrand spokesperson. But according to Benson, not many are cowering because of the current political environment, either. Just the opposite, in fact.

"Given the current climate, college students want to be a part of changing things," she said. "There's an eagerness to identify how they can connect. It's really inspiring."

Both Benson and Jenkins say these eager new recruits are already arriving in the NFL. Right now, they are learning the ropes of activism, just as rookies keep their heads down and learn their new roles and playbooks. As their confidence grows, so will their voices.

In the meantime, the leaders of today's activist movement are finding new ways to combine their efforts.

Jenkins announced Monday that he is among the founders of the Players Coalition, comprised of athletes across multiple sports and leagues. The group will connect regional players to local causes where athlete involvement can make a difference. If lawmakers are mulling a prison-reform bill in Louisiana, for example, the Players Coalition will mobilize Saints, Pelicans, LSU grads and so forth to raise awareness, lobby politicians and make their opinions heard.

This is political activity at the database-management and tactical-deployment level, which is a long way from kneeling during the national anthem amid a pre-election maelstrom. Benson's first day at RISE was the Monday after Kaepernick's first Sunday night protest. Michael Thomas and his Dolphins teammates began their protest roughly two weeks later. Benson began sending 4 a.m. text messages before she even settled into her desk; her goal was to help "add meat to the bones of these symbolic gestures."

Michael Thomas (third from left) and Dolphins teammates kneel during the national anthem. Dolphins players and ownership soon turned protest into action.
Michael Thomas (third from left) and Dolphins teammates kneel during the national anthem. Dolphins players and ownership soon turned protest into action.Stephen Brashear/Associated Press/Associated Press

Thomas, who spoke alongside Jenkins on Monday, embodies the RISE mission. His anthem protest became an extension of his The First Step program, which connects police officers and at-risk youth at pregame tailgates, town hall meetings and other local events to improve police-community relations.

"It's not just about taking a knee," Thomas said. "We're trying to take next steps. We're trying to find solutions."

Support networks are critical for activist athletes. The fear of repercussions remains real, even as RISE wins awards and non-superstars like Thomas become increasingly bold about speaking out.

"You have to make the decision: This is bigger than me," Thomas said. "Am I willing to put on the line everything I worked so hard for my whole life to make a statement? For me, that's the case."

Athletes are also finding support among lawmakers...or at least potential lawmakers. Jim Keady, Democratic candidate for New Jersey's Fourth Congressional District, spoke alongside Michael Bennett on a sport-and-activism panel at The People's Summit in Chicago in early June.

"Because athletics present such a platform, there is a moral responsibility on the part of athletes to utilize it," Keady said.

Keady felt the blowback from using even a small-scale sports platform to buck the system two decades ago. As an NCAA soccer coach and minor league player, he went toe-to-toe with Nike over the sneaker manufacturer's international labor practices.

Keady soon found himself unable to get either a coaching job or a roster spot on any minor league soccer teams. Even his social life suffered. "When I walked into a party, it was like someone pulled the needle across the record," he said.

It was a small-scale version of the mysterious unemployability a certain quarterback now faces. "When the empire decides to strike back, it's always been the same way," he said.

Jenkins put it even more succinctly. "There's no such thing as a safe activist."

There's an unfortunate partisanship to activism, as well as pretty much everything else these days. Cutting through that political polarization and the racial semiotics to just get people across the aisle to listen may be more than half the battle for the modern activist athlete. Then again, that's nothing new. "The guys who raised their fists at the Olympics: They weren't given warm hugs and kisses when they got home," Keady said.

Benson admits that the RISE program meets some resistance from players and coaches whose guards go up the moment they hear about a "safe space" to discuss multiple perspectives. But everyone wants to win, so most come to realize that better communication leads to better camaraderie and teamwork. Benson described the prevailing mindset as: "I can learn to be a better teammate if I understand and can talk about these issues."

College players aren't the only ones listening to the message. RISE gave a two-hour presentation at NFL headquarters in December. Roger Goodell attended. "Management listened," Benson said.

"I think there's much more conversation in the higher offices of the NFL, other leagues and clubs across the country than ever before," Benson said. And contrary to the NFL's image, that conversation is not about stomping out the embers of dissent. "It's more about being supportive while also keeping an eye on the ball."

That backup is something activist athletes crave. They want teams and leagues to stand beside them on social-justice issues in the same way the powers that be support breast-cancer awareness or military causes. "We see what it looks like when the league and teams want to partner with the players," Jenkins said. "But they haven't taken that initiative."

One thing at a time. It's only been a year since Jenkins and others kicked their political action into high gear, less than a year since Kaepernick knelt and Benson's first day on the job began before dawn. We're now in very strange times when even the phrase "social justice," let alone "Black Lives Matter," is met with resistance and suspicion.

Perhaps this new better-equipped, better-prepared wave of political action won't crash as hard into the brick wall of get the hell out of America if you don't like it opposition Kaepernick faced. Then again, without Kaepernick's protest, activism among athletes would neither be as visible nor as galvanized as it has become.

"He woke guys up in the NFL," Jenkins said. "He showed us how much power we have if we choose to use this platform that we have.

"If Colin Kaepernick can shake up the world that much with his one voice, imagine what all of these athletes across different sports can do."

                 

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.