Two Different Paths, Two Different Goals: Understanding the Rift in the NFL’s ‘Players Coalition’

On Sunday night, the Philadelphia Eagles played the Seattle Seahawks, but a subterranean battle had already started before kickoff. For the first time this season, Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles did not raise his fist during the playing of the national anthem. On the other sideline, the entire Seahawks defensive along with offensive lineman Duane Brown sat down. This optical standoff symbolizes a much bigger story about splits in a historic movement of NFL players for racial justice.

NFL owners have, to much fanfare, offered to donate $89 million to “aid causes important to the African American community”—in return, although this is not explicit, they expect players who have been protesting racial inequality during the anthem to shut up and play. Instead of being received as a victory, this offer has caused very public divisions among these activist athletes. Some are describing this offer as a vindication and want to take the money. Others are rejecting the offer as “a farce,” and splitting from the “Players Coalition” that has been negotiating with ownership.

To understand why these splits have ripped out into the open, it’s best to start with the wisdom of a radical Polish woman killed almost a century ago. (Seriously, bear with me.)

In 1905, the socialist Rosa Luxemburg wrote, “People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal.”

Ok, maybe we’re not talking about “the conquest of political power and social revolution,” but we are speaking about two factions of NFL players that have different strategies, tactics and politics in the fight against racism, and therefore different goals. For months, these differences have been papered over. Those days are done.

On one side is the Players Coalition led by Malcolm Jenkins. Jenkins has been attempting to address criminal justice reform by meeting with law enforcement, doing ride-alongs with police, endorsing small-bore legislation in congress, and taking chummy photos in DC with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. (After speaking to Ryan about criminal justice issues, Ryan tweeted their photo with the caption, “That moment when half of your fantasy football team shows up at your workplace.”) This is the Players Coalition strategy for change.

On the other side are those like San Francisco 49er Eric Reid, Seattle Seahawk Michael Bennett, and Miami Dolphins Kenny Stills and Michael Thomas: players inspired to act by Colin Kaepernick’s use of the anthem-space to protest racism and police violence. They see change coming from a willingness to organize outside the official corridors of power and look to support grassroots political action agitating for change. They don’t want to sit down with Paul Ryan and hear about his fantasy football team. They want to pressure him. It’s a disagreement about where change actually comes from: whether it is handed down from above or achieved from below. It’s the difference between calling for peace and calling for justice.

I spoke about these political and strategic differences several months ago to a well-known athlete activist in the NBA and he shrugged it off saying, “They are just taking different paths to the same goal.”

But now it’s plain to see that, as Luxemburg laid out, these are not different paths to the same goal but different paths to altogether different goals. Malcolm Jenkins is now saying “mission accomplished” on protests during the anthem, telling the world that he will no longer raise his fist during the anthem (Jenkins never took a knee) because he, as reported by Jeff McLane of the Philly Inquirer, “has been encouraged by the NFL’s efforts.” Jenkins said to Zach Berman of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “I don’t anticipate demonstrating this week simply because I felt like, when I started demonstrating, my whole motivation was to draw awareness to disenfranchised people, communities of color, injustices around the country, our criminal justice system and obviously, through this year and talking with the league and what they’ve kind of proposed … has presented a bigger and better platform to continue to raise that awareness.”

Yet this deal has also caused Eric Reid, Michael Thomas and Russell Okung to publicly leave Jenkins’s Players Coalition (Michael Bennett was never a part of it). Reid has gone public to say that, behind the scenes, he was told by the Players Coalition that he needed to stop protesting if they were going to get the money from the league. He has described the offer by owners as a “charade” and a “publicity stunt.” Another player who left the Players Coalition, Russell Okung, called it “a farce.” Reid was also upset that Jenkins negotiated this without input from other players, particularly Kaepernick himself.

A look at where this $89 million is actually going tells us a great deal about the political differences between these factions of players as well as whether we should see this payout as a victorious concession or “a farce.” First, while $89 million sounds like a big number, it is stretched out over a number of years and works out to roughly $250,000 per year per owner, or almost half the minimum salary for a drafted player.

This money is also not going to be just handed over to players to distribute as they see fit. The NFL owners—30 white billionaires and one South Asian billionaire—will have decisive say over where their funds flow. 25 percent would go the United Negro College Fund (which, in addition to having nothing to do with police brutality, absolutely sounds like the first organization Jerry Jones would think of when it comes to any issue involving Black people). Another 25 percent would go to The Dream Corps, a well-funded, high-profile organization started by activist and CNN host Van Jones, and then 50 percent goes to the Players Coalition of Malcolm Jenkins. The Players Coalition has been instructed to then filter this money through something called the Hopewell Fund. As Diana Moskovitz of Deadspin unpacked, the Hopewell Fund is a byzantine nonprofit run by a former Clinton administration official that has no record of doing anything to fight racial inequality whatsoever. Moskovitz concludes, “this is what you get when you do business with the NFL. The NFL was always going to try and co-opt this, it was only a question of exactly when, and how, and for what final amount.” Malcolm Jenkins is correct that the NFL aims to build a “bigger and better platform,” yet it’s a “bigger and better platform” for the issues important to Malcolm Jenkins and the Players Coalition.

It looks even worse when you contrast this largess being handed to the Hopewell Fund with where Kaepernick has given his money over the last year. As listed on his website, he has paid one million dollars to direct service organizations like Assata’s Daughters, The Coalition for the Homeless, Black Youth Project 100, United We Dream, and 100 Suits for 100 Men, which provides clothes for people who are formally incarcerated and now looking for work. He has aided cash-strapped grassroots organizations working on the front lines to actually resist oppression and police violence. These speak to the different goals of the Eric Reid faction of players: they want to keep the spotlight on police violence, social justice, and aid organizations that help people navigate oppression. It’s the difference between philanthropy and activism.

It is not surprising at all that the first public signs of tension between the Malcolm Jenkins and Eric Reid factions was Jenkins not wanting Kaepernick at the negotiating table with NFL owners last month. In contrast, Michael Bennett did not want any negotiations at all until Colin Kaepernick had been granted at least a legitimate tryout with an NFL team. 

At the time it was confusing why Jenkins didn’t want Kaepernick in these meetings given that he sparked all of this. But now it is clear. Jenkins wouldn’t sit on the same side of the table as Colin Kaepernick because he has a different destination in mind for this struggle. It is actually healthy that this is now in the open. We have two paths, two roads, and two ideas about where change comes from. Malcolm Jenkins is betting on change coming from the powers that be. Colin Kaepernick and those around him are betting on the power we have. Whatever one’s personal opinion is about this, it’s far better to be honest about that than pretend otherwise.

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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