Malcolm Jenkins is one of the Philadelphia Eagles’ most valuable players. The starting safety has also become a recognizable face off the field, thanks to his involvement in the debate over NFL policies surrounding the national anthem.
Lauded by some as a social justice advocate making change from the inside and vilified by others as a sellout, Jenkins’ presence on the team — where he’s a longtime captain — puts the Eagles close to the epicenter of the controversy.
As the 2019 season kicks off, where does that movement stand? And what are the National Football League’s current rules about protests during games?
What is likely the most visible confluence of sports and social justice in at least a generation was sparked by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In August 2016, Kaepernick began first sitting, and then kneeling, during the pre-game national anthem to bring awareness to United States police brutality, racism and racial inequity. Since Kaep’s initial actions, national anthem protests have proliferated across the NFL — and spread to several other professional sports.
The entire Eagles team highlighted the increasingly hazy separation of sports and state when they declined an invitation to the White House in 2017 after winning Super Bowl LII.
President Trump rescinded the invite when he learned most of the team had no intention of upholding the tradition of visiting D.C. after a championship win. The president kept grinding his ax against Philadelphia’s football team when he stated falsely that members of the team had knelt during the anthem. They never did.
Here’s what folks can expect to see when it comes to “taking a knee” and beyond.
The league doesn’t currently have an official policy about protesting during the anthem
In May 2018, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took an informal poll about a proposed policy that would penalize players and teams for any protest during the national anthem. Reportedly, all but two team owners — Jed York of the 49ers and the Raiders’ Mark Davis — raised their hands to support it.
After the policy was adopted, pretty much nobody was happy about it. Eagles safety Jenkins, who in 2017 cofounded a new social justice organization called the Players Coalition, expressed his disapproval. “While I disagree with this decision, I will not let it silence me or stop me from fighting,” he said.
But the policy would not stand.
After the NFL Players Association filed a grievance because the policy was put in place without input from the players, it was killed in July 2018. It hasn’t been revived since, and league spokesperson Traci Otey Blunt told Billy Penn there’s been no update to that nonpolicy.
Official Eagles stance on kneeling is murky, but coach Doug Pederson said players have ‘the right’ to protest
Jenkins began raising a fist during the opening song in 2017, and (now retired) tight end Chris Long put an arm around him in a show of solidarity.
When the NFL first tried to prohibit players from protesting during the national anthem in May 2018, Lurie released a statement that expressed solidarity with his players.
Lurie’s statement said, in part: “In this great country of ours, there are so many people who are hurting and marginalized, which is why I am proud of our players for continuously working to influence positive change. Their words and actions have demonstrated not only that they have a great deal of respect for our country, but also that they are committed to finding productive ways to fight social injustice, poverty and other societal issues that are important to all of us.”
What Lurie didn’t say then is whether or not the franchise would support players who chose to protest during the anthem. Later in 2018, coach Doug Pederson talked about Jenkins’ activism in a CBS interview and said Eagles players had the right to protest.
According to an Eagles spokesperson, there has not been any update on the team’s official policy since then. No word from Philadelphia team members if any anthem protests will persist this year.
Some players on other teams said they’re still planning to kneel
Eric Reid was the second player to protest during the national anthem. Since Kaepernick’s exodus from the NFL, Reid has continued to be a vocal advocate for social justice and for his bro.
Now a safety for the Carolina Panthers, Reid said over the summer he’s planning to keep kneeling during the anthem, even though Kaep said back in 2017 that he wouldn’t kneel anymore since the protest had accomplished its goal to bring awareness to soured community-police relations and anti-Blackness in the U.S.
Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson of the Miami Dolphins have also suggested on social media they’ll continue kneeling.
Eagles fans have mixed feelings about their team protesting
Danyl Patterson is a hardcore Eagles fan who traveled to London to see the team’s first game across the pond in franchise history.
She said the Eagles’ outspokenness about current events is exactly what kept her watching last season.
“I felt like my team deserved my fandom and earned it by understanding how huge and important the issues are,” Patterson said.
Fan Romier Owens said he would not consider it a distraction. “Games are still played Sunday, Monday, and Thursday. I believe if you have a platform, you should use it.”
Another green-bleeder going by Rob Real wants to keep politics off the field. He understands why some players would want to protest, and respects free speech, he said. His advice for his team? “Be heard, but at the same time, make sure you get the job done that you are there to do.”
Other fans, like Jessica Gustaitis and Tyler Smelt, don’t want to see any kneeling.
“I dislike politics getting into professional sports,” Gustaitis told Billy Penn. “You are paid to play a game. You should not have an alternate agenda.” She said she appreciated Jenkins’ approach to activism in his personal life, adding, “Jenkins was the forefront of the social justice and he did so tastefully.”
Smelt is an Army veteran who said he’s lost brothers who were fighting for America’s freedom. “It’s an insult to them when players kneel,” he said.
Kaepernick remains unemployed and out of the league
On Oct. 15, 2017, Kaepernick filed a grievance against the NFL alleging collusion among team owners after he couldn’t get hired as a free agent.
Kaepernick still not playing, but he did recently post a video to Instagram that suggested he’s still training, willing and ready to play for any team that’ll have him. Some called for the Eagles to snap him up when the team suffered from multiple backup quarterback injuries during training camp this summer. They did not.
Work is being done to address the original aim of Kaepernick’s actions: police brutality and racism
Former Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Jenkins founded the NFL Players Coalition in 2017 to address social justice issues.
Since then, the nonprofit has lobbied elected officials for criminal justice reform and donated money to various organizations. This year, they launched an “Inspire Change” platform that aims to support education, improve police-community relations and engage in criminal justice reform.
Jenkins specifically, and the Players Coalition at large, have come under-fire from fans and other players for working with the NFL at all while Kaepernick remains blacklisted from the league. Jenkins responded recently with a post on Twitter highlighting the organization’s work. “It ain’t about us, it’s always been about the people,” he wrote.
Fans are sure about what they do want to see from the Eagles this season
Across the board, fans who spoke to Billy Penn loved the nude #bodyposi photo shoot the Eagles’ offensive line did for the ESPN The Magazine Body Issue — or at least didn’t have a problem with it.
“Let them do them,” said Smeltz, who was virulently against the anthem protests. “It looks like they all had a good time. Something my army brothers and I would do.”
Folks that bleed green all agree on one thing: They want a healthy, unified family of a team that knows how to win.
The NFL season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 5 at 8:20 p.m. with the Green Bay Packers at the Chicago Bears. The Eagles will start their schedule against Washington at the Linc on Sunday, Sept. 8 at 1 p.m.