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NFL players' protests are now scarce, but social causes — as well as Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid — deserve spotlight

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 9/12/2018 Jarrett Bell
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Malcolm Jenkins didn’t protest during the national anthem before the Eagles and Falcons kicked off the NFL season last week. He didn’t raise a fist, as he’s done in the past. Didn’t stay in the tunnel, as was the case before a preseason game. And he’s never knelt.

Yet the Eagles safety continues to get his message out. During pregame warmups, he has worn T-shirts – and inspired teammates to do likewise – blaring enlightenment. Last week his shirt read, “Ca$h bail = poverty trap.”

On Tuesday, Jenkins and teammate Chris Long released a powerful, 90-second video on social media that expanded on that theme. They opened by narrating examples of human victims. They gave a quick primer on the bail system and hammered home that too many people – 70% of those in jail, they contend, have not been convicted – are too poor to purchase freedom before their trials. They concluded their presentation by urging the end of the cash bail system.

Talk about impact players.

Jenkins, 30, one of the co-founders of the Players Coalition, has taken his activism in myriad ways beyond protests – during minicamp, he even stood silent at his locker displaying poster boards with hand-written messages – as a means of advancing his causes while minimizing controversy.

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That’s not to suggest that Colin Kaepernick, the man who used the NFL stage to launch a national conversation about police killings of unarmed African-Americans and other social injustices, wasn’t effective in kneeling in protest during the anthem. Jenkins has just taken a different track. This is not about either-or … although you’d suspect it is for the revenue-and-image-conscious NFL.

“Everyone has their own passions and convictions,” Jenkins told USA TODAY Sports. “I never try to tell anyone to do what I’m doing. The biggest thing is that everybody knows what the message is and why we’re having a conversation about it. As best we can, we’re trying to push attention toward specific things.”

With the NFL still lacking a hardline policy this season, backing off a measure that owners passed in May (while continuing to discuss the matter with the players’ union), player protests during the anthem were scarce during the first week of regular-season games. That’s pretty much what happened a year ago, too, before President Trump’s infamous “get that son of a bitch off the field” declaration sparked more demonstrations and, strikingly, more interest from NFL owners in supporting players on addressing social issues.

The Week 1 scorecard: Jenkins’ teammate, defensive end Michael Bennett, took a seat on the bench toward the end of anthem. Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch did not stand for the song before Monday's game against the Rams. In Denver, Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomas and linebacker Brandon Marshall remained in the locker room. In Miami, Dolphins defensive end Robert Quinn raised a fist, as is his custom, while receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson knelt

In a league with nearly 2,000 players, just two players knelt. NFvL crisis in check?

That two players knelt – while Kaepernick and Eric Reid, the former San Francisco 49ers safety who knelt at his side, pursue collusion grievances against the NFL – was also important.

In the face of potential backlash and controversy, at least Stills (who has knelt for two years) and Wilson had the freedom to express themselves. That’s the American way.

While Jenkins and others are to be commended for their social efforts, the fact that two Dolphins took a knee was a reminder of the plight of Kaepernick and Reid.

Kaepernick is featured in the moving Nike ad campaign, but he still doesn’t have a job in the NFL. That’s plain wrong. Did you see Nathan Peterman get a chance to open the season as the Buffalo Bills starter? Now Peterman has been benched. Again.

Reid, also in his prime years, can’t latch on with a team. The Falcons sure can use a safety, with Keanu Neal done for the season with a torn ACL. 

Signing Kaepernick and Reid for legitimate opportunities would be quite a message about now. 

In any event, there’s progress on other fronts. Commissioner Roger Goodell spent Tuesday at a criminal justice symposium in New Orleans as part of a “Listen and Learn” tour organized by the Players Coalition, joining Saints players Demario Davis, Benjamin Watson and Cameron Jordan, as well as team owner Gayle Benson. They spent hours in Magistrate Court with lawyers from the Orleans Public Defender’s office, getting a close-up view of the bail system that players are trying to reform.

It was the latest in a series of community-oriented engagements that Goodell has participated in with players. Some of those events occurred even before an unprecedented summit last fall with players and the subsequent commitment from the league to partner with players in a $90 million social justice initiative.

It reminded me of a July interview with Jocelyn Moore, the NFL’s new executive vice president for communications and public affairs.

"Action is important,” Moore told USA TODAY Sports. “The overarching goal is reflected in the work currently being done to change policy, change laws.”

Moore touted a number of objectives on the players’ agenda but was careful in trying not to connect any dots to the prospects of anthem protests. Of course, when the NFL collaborated with the Players Coalition, the partnership sure gave many the perception of an action item to squash protests.

“We have to be careful,” Moore said, asked about using the NFL platform for social causes. “We have to play football.”

And sell football.

Jenkins, meanwhile, loves the Nike commercial featuring Kaepernick, with his message of being willing to sacrifice – namely his football career – for a cause.

“I think it’s right on time,” Jenkins said. “For someone like him, especially, as demonized as he’s been.”

Jenkins hopes that a residual effect of the Nike campaign is that “in a world where people are telling us to shut up and dribble or whatever … it creates a safe space for other people to get behind players and athletes that want to be positive with impact in the community.”

It’s also notable that in an open letter published before the season opener, the Players Coalition acknowledged Kaepernick’s inspiration and “act of patriotism to forfeit your job to fight for others.”

It’s just too bad that in an NFL that wraps itself in patriotism, Kaepernick and Reid don’t have jobs – which would send quite the message about progress from protests.

Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.

Related Slideshow: Athletes protest racial injustice (provided by photo services)


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