The NFL's Wokest Team Faces Ultimate Test of Its Resolve on and off the Field

Mike TanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 5, 2017

Philadelphia Eagles' Chris Long (56), Malcolm Jenkins (27) and Rodney McLeod (23) gesture during the National Anthem before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/Associated Press

The Eagles have made it all look easy this year: winning games, changing the world and having fun doing it. 

The NFL's most overtly, unapologetically activist team is out to prove that it's possible to win a Super Bowl while fighting for causes and sticking it to the "stick to sports" crowd once and for all.

"We are trying to do things the right way both on and off the field," receiver Torrey Smith said.

But the NFL's Woke Warriors now face their toughest tests yet: a challenging late-season schedule and rebellion among the NFL's social-justice advocates.

The Eagles have a chance not only to bring Philadelphia its first NFL championship in 57 years, but also to turn the Super Bowl into a megaphone for social change.

But it won't happen without a test of their unity, both on and off the field.

        

The Social-Justice Network

When asked in early November to name all of the social causes he is involved in, veteran safety Malcolm Jenkins chuckled, "How much time you got?"

The NFL's most visible political activist then rattled off a list, counting on his fingers to keep things straight:

  • Several ride-alongs with the Philadelphia Police Department, including one in which the police responded to a shooting.
  • Visits to State Correctional Institution Graterford near Philadelphia, and meetings with grassroots criminal justice reform groups.
  • Two trips to Capitol Hill to meet with federal lawmakers. Several trips to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to discuss prison-reform bills with state lawmakers.
  • A host of of panel discussions and keynote speeches. 
  • Meetings with Roger Goodell and the NFL as leader of the Players Coalition, tellingly low among the agenda items Jenkins listed.
  • Letters to legislators and op-ed columns.

Jenkins is far from the only Eagles player with a busy itinerary.

Chris Long donated his first six game checks to his hometown of Charlottesville after September's violent, racially charged protests. He is donating the rest of this year's checks to equal-education initiatives. Long's Waterboys program provides clean water to villages in East Africa while inspiring military veterans to take on the challenge of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. Like Jenkins, he meets with congressmen in between public appearances, fundraisers, practices and games.

Smith rounds out the Eagles' triumvirate of vocal activists. He is a major figure in the Jenkins-led NFL Players Coalition (as is Long), a frequent wingman on Jenkins' lobbying junkets and an outspoken advocate for a wide range of causes.

Smith's Family Fund provides scholarships and resources to low-income schools. But traditional programs like Family Fund (or Long's Waterboys, or Carson Wentz's A01 Foundation) aren't the sort of initiatives we think as social activism these days.

It's the spicier stuff—criminal-justice reform, police brutality, racially charged issues in our racially charged times, the stuff that's supposed to divide the locker room and outrage season-ticket holdersthat makes the Eagles stand out.

And the team's activism goes beyond Jenkins, Long and Smith.

Rodney McLeod is also a Players Coalition member, as are a few other teammates. Brandon Graham represented RISE (the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality) during My Cause My Cleats week. Several younger teammates attended a mid-November rally for Meek Mill, the rapper incarcerated for a decadelong string of petty, nonviolent offenses, and Jenkins delivered a keynote speech.

Despite the wide range of causes, Long doesn't think the Eagles are significantly more active in their communities than any other team. They are just going about things a different way.

"I think there are a lot of guys around the league that do things under the radar or have different levels of involvement but don't do much to blast it out there," Long said. "But we've got some guys that have to put it out on the forefront because they are trying to accomplish certain things."

Long acknowledges, though, that many of the things the Eagles do also fall outside the realm of traditional sports charity workand can therefore draw criticism.

"Guys have been doing community work off the field since the beginning of time. But no one complains about that. But if someone perceives it to be controversial, all of a sudden it becomes a 'distraction.'"

Even on the controversial front, Smith feels that other NFL teams are just as active.

"I think you can say that about Seattle," he said. "I think you can say that about Miami and San Francisco. There are a lot of teams with a lot of guys that have been doing things for years to fix some issues and bring awareness to some issues."

Activism and community involvement can indeed be found in every NFL locker room. But Seahawks players don't take the dawn Acela train after a Monday night win to lobby in Harrisburg for criminal justice reform bills, as Jenkins, Long and Smith did in October. And the Dolphins and 49ers aren't burdened with the expectations that a 10-2 start brings.

That's what makes the Eagles unique: They've risen to the top of the NFL standings during the most politically incendiary era in the league's history. And they've done it by embracing potentially contentious causes, not burrowing their heads to avoid them.

Winning brings attention to both the advocates and their causes.

"People want to talk about things that are going on with this team," Smith said. "Obviously, the game is the most important thing. But they will bring up Chris Long donating his salary, Malcolm helping lead a coalition, Carson with his foundation, my Family Fund. It makes it easier to highlight that."

"Some people's reaction to me saying things this year is, 'Why is he voicing these opinions all of a sudden?'" said Long, who spent his early career on unsuccessful St. Louis Rams teams. "I've always voiced my opinions. Now I'm on good teams. People care."

Winning also shushes the "stick to sports" types who think football players should be seen but never heard.

"It proves that you can pursue some of the things you care about off the field and still win," Long said.

The Eagles' core activists have formed a combination support network/mutual-admiration society, attending each other's events and presenting a united front on most issues, whether the White House is attacking the players' right to protest or the activist community itself is in upheaval.

"He's someone who walks the walk," Jenkins told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Zach Berman about Long. "For all the endeavors he's in, it's really impressive. … The amount of empathy he's able to give is something that's missing right now in society. I haven't had a teammate quite like him."

Adds Long: "A lot of the things that Malcolm is doing are for the greater good. Everybody can really benefit from it. ... Me, Malcolm and Torrey don't agree on everything, but we largely agree. That's what makes us join up and pursue some of the things we pursue. I just know it's very genuine with those guys. I applaud them for speaking their minds. And I always will speak mine."

Eagles defensive end Chris Long is donating each of his paychecks this season to charitable causes.
Eagles defensive end Chris Long is donating each of his paychecks this season to charitable causes.Rob Carr/Getty Images

The spirit of mutual support has rubbed off on less-established players. Second-year cornerback Jalen Mills said he attended the Meek Mill rally out of "respect and support to Jenk. He's a guy I look up to."

Mills stressed that he is no firebrand in training. "I didn't even know the whole [Meek Mill] story. But once Malcolm gave me the rundown, I wanted to put my foot in it."

It speaks to the culture of the team that non-established Eagles feel comfortable attending not-quite-mainstream political events for causes they are not 100 percent invested in. The Eagles may be proving that political activism can do more to unite a team than divide it, especially in an era when there's nothing unusual about an NFL player embracing a sociopolitical cause.

        

A Green Light

Andrew Hawkins, retired Bengals and Browns receiver and NFL protest pioneer, knows the value of the locker-room support that the Eagles now enjoy better than anyone, perhaps even Colin Kaepernick.

In December 2014, nearly two years before Kaepernick became one of the most polarizing figures in American culture, Hawkins took the field before a Browns-Bengals game in a "Justice for Tamir Rice-John Crawford" T-shirt, protesting the shooting deaths of two African-American youths by police in the summer and autumn of 2014.

"When I wore the T-shirt, I felt like I was out there by myself," Hawkins said.

That's because he was.

Several teammates initially planned to join him in the protest, but they all had reservations as game day approached. So Hawkins took the heatincluding literal "stick to football" remarks by the former head of the local police unioncompletely alone.

So Hawkins appreciates how much the Eagles activists benefit from having each other's backs.

"Other people in the locker room you can bounce ideas off is a big deal," Hawkins told B/R. "Anyone who can support you in that manner takes the heat off, because that's a pressure cooker."

The Eagles support network also extends to the front office. Many Eagles praise owner Jeffrey Lurie for fostering a positive environment for their efforts.

"It's almost like a green light," Smith said. "They want to figure out how they can help us in the best way possible. It means a lot when you know that you have the support. It's not like you are doing something secretly, wondering how it's going to affect you."

When former wide receiver Andrew Hawkins tried to make a political statement with a T-shirt before a game in 2014, he said he "felt like I was out there by myself."
When former wide receiver Andrew Hawkins tried to make a political statement with a T-shirt before a game in 2014, he said he "felt like I was out there by myself."Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Smith added that the Ravens and 49ers organizations were also supportive of his activism. Hawkins praised Browns ownership for their response to his protest, even though he did not warn them of what he planned. "Ask forgiveness, not permission," he said, quoting a familiar motto.

But Smith, Long and Hawkins all noted that not all front offices are equally understanding. NFL owners are a much more politically diverse group than the average fan might think, but it's probably safe to say that Cowboys players would feel uncomfortable speaking at a rally for an incarcerated rapper these days.

Those who know Lurie describe him as politically left of center. He dabbled in activism in his youth and earned a doctorate in social policy from Brandeis with a dissertation on the depiction of women in Hollywood movies. Lurie idolized NBA superstar Bill Russell when growing up in Boston, not just for Russell's on-court accomplishments but his outspoken civil rights stance in the 1960s.

Lurie, in other words, may be the perfect boss for a locker room full of Jenkins/Long/Smith types. Even the owner's September equivocations on Kaepernick, when taken in total and not chopped into inflammatory nuggetssound progressive stacked next to the remarks of his fellow owners.

Put it all together, and the Eagles have the best foundation from which to pursue social causes in the NFL. Their Big Three can lean on one another. Younger and/or less-vocal players can cling to the established ones. Ownership won't hang anyone out to dry because they were spotted at a rally or march. And the wins make everything easier.

"There's an old quote from Paul Brown that says 'Winning makes believers of us all,'" Hawkins said. "I can promise you that if the Eagles were losing, the conversation around them would be: They're too busy being crusaders instead of football players, which is why our team sucks."

With an appreciation for outspoken athletes such as Bill Russell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has not discouraged players in his locker room from making their feelings known about social issues.
With an appreciation for outspoken athletes such as Bill Russell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has not discouraged players in his locker room from making their feelings known about social issues.Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Times have changed since Hawkins walked alone onto the protest stage three years ago. There are now organizations and league-wide support services for activist players.

But the Eagles recently discovered that organizing poses its own set of problems.

       

Coalition Friction

Malcolm Jenkins looked uncomfortable as a local- and national-media phalanx swarmed his locker in late November."I just stepped off the practice field," he said as he donned a wool cap and stammered to select his opening words. The NFL's de facto spokesman for all things social justice was suddenly a bit deflective.

Earlier in the day, Eric Reid, Michael Thomas and Kenny Stills publicly severed ties with the Players Coalition, the Jenkins co-chaired (along with now-retired Anquan Boldin) organization that has acted as the unofficial mediator between player-activists and the commissioner's office. Other defections would follow.

Reid and others voiced a variety of grievances against the Coalition, from a lack of transparency to the perceived sidelining of Kaepernick. At the heart of the division: a nearly $100 million donation by the league to various Coalition-endorsed causes which looked suspiciously like a bribe to hush future protests during the national anthem.

Jenkins was blindsided by the defections and criticism. He had spoken to Reid the previous evening but was given no warning that Coalition members would break ranks. He expressed disappointment that Reid and the others went public with their complaints. He then put the best possible spin on the schism.

"To me, the story remains the same," Jenkins said. "I know the number of guys we have that are committed to actually working in a way that leads to progress and are excited and enthusiastic about doing things in their community. And they're still on board. So we're moving forward."

It was the first time the leaders of the NFL social-justice movement had not been in lockstep agreement, at least publicly. It was also the first time that Jenkins hadn't appeared to be two steps ahead of every problem.

Jenkins and other activist players have always held the high ground when the president or a rogue owner insulted or attacked protestors. The Coalition always had tangible initiatives to point to—including a specific criminal-justice bill they convinced the NFL to endorsewhen critics wondered (or pretended to wonder) what the protests were about.

The Players Coalition also noticeably kept the most inflammatory elements of the protests at arm's length. Few Eagles have knelt during the national anthemJenkins preferred a raised fistand Kaepernick's role in the movement has never moved beyond kinda-sorta-maybe status.

That moderate stance undoubtedly fostered a smooth relationship between the Coalition and the NFL. It probably helped the Eagles walk a middle ground through the minefield between football and politics. But it was clearly one of the underlying causes of divisions within the Coalition.

The Players Coalition suddenly looks less like a progressive utopia than a typical messy political alliance, full of egos and imperfectly aligned agendas. 

Maybe this was the distraction everyone was expecting. Or perhaps this is a necessary growing pain as NFL players chart new territory as political organizers. Or maybe it's a little of both.

Whatever splintering may be taking place, the fault lines don't appear to be dividing the Eagles locker room. Critics (and former Coalition members) howled when the NFL announced its gift and Jenkins almost simultaneously announced the end of his raised-fist protest. Had Jenkins sold out the causeand his fellow players' rightsfor some seed money that roughly equates to a good quarterback's contract?

One of the first players to leap to the defense of Jenkins and the new deal was Long.

"There's nothing in here about a mandate for players to cease exercising their right to protest," Long tweeted. "I wouldn't associate myself if there were."

Indeed, while the Players Coalition may be shaky, the Eagles coalition remains united.

        

The Largest Platform

The Eagles lost to the Seahawks in Week 13. The result won't dampen the the team's off-field efforts, but it served as a reminder that Philadelphia's toughest battle has nothing to do with press conferences or political stances. For the Eagles to change the conversation around the playoffs, they must survive a tough slate of late-season games.

While reaching the Super Bowl would give the Eagles a platform like no other, the Seahawks are among the teams that could derail those plans in the playoffs.
While reaching the Super Bowl would give the Eagles a platform like no other, the Seahawks are among the teams that could derail those plans in the playoffs.Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

It's not unreasonable to imagine the Eagles reaching the Super Bowl with plenty of sociopolitical subplots in tow: the NFL vs. Racial Injustice, the Eagles vs. the White House, the Players Coalition Against Itself.

It could be the most woke Super Bowl ever. Or the most controversial one. If you believe the "boycott the NFL" crowd, a Super Bowl full of political side dishes could doom the league. But it could also help change the sport.

What's remarkable is that an Eagles Super Bowl is even possible. Philadelphia could establish a new NFL paradigm, one that's closer to the NBA's model. Leaning into players' causes and passions, giving them a voice on issues that really matter to them, may prove better for team chemistry than ordering everyone to shove their heads into their playbooks.

If the Eagles succeed, the copycat league will take notice.

For their part, Eagles players are too busy trying to reach the Super Bowl to speculate about what they might do when they arrive. And the Players Coalition schism has left Jenkins and the others uncertain about the exact next step their activism might take.

But Hawkins believes that a Super Bowl appearance can both validate the Eagles' causes and their right to express them.

"Maybe the speaking up is the action," Hawkins said. "Maybe the action is influencing the future generation to be more open and be better listeners and feel more conviction to help people in a lesser position than yourself. Maybe in 20 years, we're all in a better place because those kids are the ones who grow up to be the lawmakers."

The Eagles could change the relationship between sports and politics forever. It won't be easy, but the Woke Warriors knew they weren't signing on for anything easy.

"If it's worth it, it will be hard," Jenkins said.

   

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.