‘To Change Anything You Have to be Uncomfortable’
Malcolm Jenkins, a leading voice amongst NFL players in the fight against racial oppression, explains why he raised his fist during the national anthem last Monday and what he hopes to achieve
Malcolm Jenkins, one of Eagles players who raised a right fist during the national anthem before Monday night’s game, has been a leading voice in the NFL when it comes to protesting oppression. Before joining Philadelphia’s other defensive backs at a steakhouse for their Thursday night dinner, he spoke to The MMQB at length about racial inequality, what NFL players are trying to accomplish by speaking out, and a little football too.
KAHLER: What’s your message?
JENKINS: My original plan was to have teammates white and black stand together raising their fists, so that it's no longer is a white or black issue and so people can’t automatically write it off like it is dividing, because it’s not a Black Power salute. Historically, if you look up the clenched fist or the raised fist, it is simply a sign of solidarity, resistance, and strength, especially against oppression and against violence. That’s what I wanted to do. But I mean, like anything else in this country, it’s hard to stand in front of thousands of people and take a stand on this. When you see guys losing endorsements and you see the enormous wave of hate thrown at the guys who have stood out on this, it's hard and I think that’s why you see on every team across the league, you see two or three guys that are out there kind of by themselves doing this. But when you talk to guys in the locker room, there are plenty of guys who have a strong opinion. I’m never one to push anybody, they will work that out on their own time. I don’t want somebody with lukewarm convictions to step out in front of this, because there is actually work to be done. So if you step out in front of this, you are committed to do work and do something to change. I would love for more of my teammates to do it, but I understand that is something that they have to work out on their own time.
KAHLER: This week, someone from your hometown who is serving in the military reached out and wanted to talk to you about the gesture. What was the conversation like?
JENKINS: He went to the same high school as me and he sent me a Facebook message. He just wanted to talk to me about my protest and have a conversation about it. He was in support of what I was doing and stepping out in front of a controversial topic and knowing all of the heat that is probably going to come along with it. But he wanted to ask me about it and give some suggestions about the gesture of raising a fist. He was concerned about people automatically associating it with the Black Panther party and something that could be dividing. So we talked about my reasoning for doing it and my thought process. I definitely respect and understand the concerns of the men and women who serve our country, and the officers, and I try to articulate that in every interview. This is in no way a shot at our servicemen and women. This is not anti-police. This is just something that needs to be changed and is wrong. For me, the whole reason behind the fist is to acknowledge who this problem is affecting. This is a problem that continuously seems to affect the African-American community. It’s not just police brutality, but historically, all the systematic injustices. The criminal justice system and incarceration, education, jobs, wages, and the huge disparity in the numbers of these things. This is something that affects the black community. I didn’t want to take away from that fact and water it down to make people comfortable. To change anything you have to be uncomfortable.
At the end of the day, once we finished the conversation, he said that he respected everything I had to say. He was happy that I put the time to have the call with him and hear him out. I respect his opinion and I enjoy those types of conversations because I don’t think I know everything. I can only speak on my experience and my knowledge. Hearing from another perspective gives me some insight that I might not have thought about and some things that I might not have considered. That dialogue is really what we are trying to produce with the entire protest. We want that dialogue to happen and the people who are silent are the ones we are trying to awake. Whether people like it or not, it is to the point now where silence becomes a nod of approval for the way things are. And the way things are is bad.
KAHLER: Why didn’t you raise your fist during Week 1?
JENKINS: We were going to do it as a team, but at the final hour we decided that we wanted to make sure that we weren’t doing anything to take away from 9/11. We wanted to honor that day. Although I thought the issue was just as important, as a group, we collectively decided to stay away from that day.
KAHLER: Do you plan to continue raising your fist at every game this season? What about the rest of your career?
JENKINS: I know it will be a season-long thing, I don’t know about career-long, hopefully we will change some things before then. I definitely think it is something I am going to do for the rest of the year. It started off with my frustration with the hashtag generation that we have. Something happens that is devastating and we get on social media and everybody pours their opinions into the social media space and we create hashtags. The problem with hashtags is if someone starts a new hashtag, people move on. And these hashtags that we were creating were human lives. As soon as something else came up, we moved on from these humans losing their lives, these Americans losing their lives. This summer, I got frustrated with that, and that’s why I really commend Colin Kaepernick for starting the conversation. At this point now, it’s how do we continue to keep this relevant? I want to make sure I do it every week because I want to keep the conversation going and I don’t want people to get comfortable and move on to the next thing because these are American citizens that are losing their lives when they don’t need to. Whether they are right or wrong in the situation, we’ve seen countless times where people can be breaking the law and arrested justly and go through the court system and get punished, our justice system is set to deal with punishment. But unfortunately, not everybody gets that treatment, a lot of people lose their lives before they can even get to a judge, whether they were doing something wrong or not. I want to make sure that this doesn’t leave the living rooms of our American citizens.
KAHLER: My colleague Robert Klemko wrote a story in the Sept. 19 issue of Sports Illustrated about the group text that you initiated among NFL veterans to talk about these issues. Why did you want guys across the league talking about this?
JENKINS: After Kaepernick’s thing, I saw my teammate, we had a young rookie Myke Tavarres who was a bubble player and really wasn’t sure if he was going to make the team or not, but in an open conversation with the team, he said that he would kneel for our last preseason game. And it became a huge issue in the media and everybody jumped on it. I realized for somebody like him with no security, that is really bold and dangerous place to be. I know that there were other guys in my locker room that felt strongly about it and I know there has to be other guys in locker rooms across this league that feel strongly about it. I wanted to figure out if there was a way to, as a league, do something collectively—one game where we could all stand in solidarity and get our point across. I just started to collect names of guys from around the league and we just started talking and ideas bounced around. It was black and white players, all of us had some really good input. And after that, you started to see more and more guys around the league do something. Now, it is still hard to get everybody. But I think there is a league-wide conversation that is being had about what the options are to do it. It’s not just about the protest, we have ideas about what guys are doing in certain cities that have been working. Like I shared with the guys about how in July, before a lot of this stuff happened, me and my teammates sat down with the police commissioner of Philadelphia and just had a conversation with him and a couple police officers about what we can do to bridge the gap between the community and the police. We wanted to know what officers were dealing with, to humanize them and get their side, but also to be able to have the community leaders talk to the commissioner and give them their side. Often, the community doesn’t have a voice in this whole thing. I shared that with the guys and other guys are sharing what they’ve been doing. We didn’t want to talk about it much in the media, but there is a conversation going around.
KAHLER: Do you think a coach would ever be able to join the movement?
JENKINS: I think any coach who steps out in front of this is a bold man and a brave man and I would have more respect for him than anybody. When you talk about being the leader of team and being there to win games and all the pressure that comes with that, the coaching carousel, the amount of turnover for a head coach is at an all time high. So to put somebody else in front of yourself and see what is going on in the world and understand that this is bigger than football, to me, I am waiting for a coach to not necessarily join the protest but at least to acknowledge what is going on in this country is wrong. To see what happened in Tulsa and to publicly say that is wrong and this needs to change. I think that’s all it takes. Once that starts and people start to take that change, then we can stop doing the protest. But if nobody wants to acknowledge that or lose their own security for the sake of somebody else or the sake of the nation, a whole group of people, then it is going to be hard to change.
KAHLER: Do you have any personal stories of being racially profiled?
JENKINS: In our NFL security meetings that we do every year, the head of security for our team speaks to us about numerous topics like gun safety, domestic violence, how to keep our house secure, personal security, everything. And in the last two years, they have talked about police encounters, but this year stood out to me specifically because he started by saying, I am not here to get into a conversation about what is right and what is wrong and what your rights are as a citizen. I am here to simply coach you up on how to survive the encounter. There was a little bit of rumbling and he said, Look I get it, there are a lot of things going on, a lot of things that aren’t right, but we are here so that you survive the encounter. In that moment you knew that he was not talking to Carson Wentz. He said, look if you get pulled over, most of you probably have tinted windows, so roll all your windows down, keep your hands on the steering wheel. If the officer asks you to pull out your license and registration, don’t just reach for it, announce and say, Hey, officer, I am reaching for my license. He said, I know all of this is not right and this isn’t in line with the rights you have as a citizen, but we need you to survive this encounter and you can report the officer later after that. The fact that we even have to have this conversation tells you that there is something wrong.
KAHLER: Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was killed in Charlotte this week by a black police officer, and people in the city responded by protesting and rioting. Cam Newton spoke about it on Wednesday and said we need to examine the way shootings by police are treated after they happen. What do you think of Cam’s comments?
JENKINS: That’s the whole issue, and I think where the outrage comes is the lack of charges and convictions and people being held accountable for their actions and their mistakes when it’s about lives being lost. Every time that you see an officer get into one of these situations, they go off on paid leave and they get like 72 hours before their interview. Whereas for a civilian, if I am accused of shooting somebody, I will immediately be interrogated and they are going to cross-check my sources. But they give these officers 72 hours and during this time the officers has the files and the reports all available to them so they have time to coordinate their story before they get interviewed and make sure their story is air-tight. And I think something is just not right with that. It would go a long way if we had other officers who saw this stuff and just said, that’s wrong. That’s flat out wrong. When officers get quiet and they don’t want to call a spade a spade, it automatically means that you agree it’s OK. That’s where a lot of the outrage comes from because it’s like what more do we have to show you? We’re not making this up. Black people aren’t lying. We’re not victims, we’re not just making stuff up for you to feel bad for us. What more do we have to show you besides multiple people being killed unarmed, hands in the air, where nobody’s life is being threatened, like the Tulsa situation. [Editor's note: Betty Shelby, the officer who fatally shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, has been charged with manslaughter.] There are some cases where it makes it hard, where the officer has been put in a compromising position where maybe the person is being belligerent and aggressive, and those are hard to decipher, but there have been plenty of cases where a person was murdered. To me, in those cases, there is no both sides. There is one side, and it is that the officer was wrong. Whether they did it on purpose or on accident, they were wrong, and they need to be held accountable for it.
KAHLER: Maybe a hard transition here, but let's talk a little bit about football. You’re involved with Win-Win, the fantasy football app. That led to the Battle of the Birds tournament for charity against Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson. How does Win-Win work?
JENKINS: It’s fantasy football as you know it, it is the same platform as DraftKings weekly fantasy. But the fun thing is, instead of winning money, you get to win prizes and player experiences. In my tournament, you can win an autographed Carson Wentz picture, an autographed jersey, the actual helmet that I wore all last season in my first Pro Bowl season—it still has the mouthpiece on it and everything. The big-ticket item is two tickets to watch a game in my personal suite with my family, as well as sideline passes to be on the field during pregame. After the game, to be able to meet myself and a few of my teammates. The majority of the entry fee goes to my foundation, the Malcolm Jenkins Foundation; we are doing things in four different states right now. We do work in Ohio, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. It is a fun thing to win some experiences and to give back. Everybody loves fantasy football and everybody loves the players that they watch.That’s why they call it a win-win. It’s a win-win situation.
KAHLER: You have a new NFL Network segment called All-Pro Fantasy, where you interview players who are fantasy football stars. Are you jealous of the attention that offensive players receive because of fantasy football?
JENKINS: No, not really. There are all those leagues that have individual defensive players but I don’t play any of those, I just play with the normal defense and special teams. It’s fun for me as a defensive guy because I would hate to have to play other defensive backs. Like, if I had to draft other safeties than myself I would be upset. I kind of enjoy being able to draft offensive guys and watch them. There are a lot of offensive guys on my team who don’t want to play fantasy football for that exact reason, they don’t want to have to start another receiver over themselves.
KAHLER: Who is on your roster?
JENKINS: Me and my defensive backs, we have a little league. My starting lineup this week is Russell Wilson, Matt Forte, and I’m going to go with a sleeper here with Fozzy Whittaker. Well, actually I am going back and forth. Do I want to gamble with Whittaker or do I want to start Frank Gore? That’s my decision of the week. I have Jordy Nelson, Kelvin Benjamin, Martellus Bennett, the Eagles defense, Jason Myers is the kicker and then my flex, I am trying to decide between T.Y. Hilton and Theo Riddick.
KAHLER: Wait a second. How did you land the Eagles defense in a league of all Eagles defensive backs?
JENKINS: I just had to draft them a little bit earlier than everybody expected. Everybody waits to see when are you taking quarterbacks and then all of a sudden somebody takes a defense and all the top defenses go. I had it timed it up right where nobody expected it, it was probably a little early, but so far we’ve been doing pretty well. I am 2-0 right now.
KAHLER: What is Carson Wentz like as a teammate? He’s just a rookie, but how is he doing as a leader?
JENKINS: He is a cool teammate. He is not afraid to be around the veterans, which is a common thing sometimes. He has a little personality to him. As a leader, that is one thing that I think is going to grow organically. I can see that he is a leader, but he is not in a situation where he has to take over and all of a sudden be the vocal leader for the team. We have a lot of good leaders and a lot of veterans on the team that already have those roles, so I think that gives him an environment to really grow as a leader organically to build the respect of teammates. Some people will have that leadership just because they are a quarterback or just because they were drafted No. 2 overall, but he has the opportunity to actually organically gain the respect of his teammates and that will happen as weeks go on.
KAHLER: Last season you had a 99-yard pick-six of Tom Brady. As you look at your schedule this year, who is the next big-name quarterback you want to pick off? Ben Roethlisberger on Sunday?
JENKINS: Roethlisberger is one that I would love to have in my man cave, put it next to my Brady ball that I got. Looking at the schedule this year, I think Ben might be the best quarterback we’ll see. He is definitely in the top two that we will see. I definitely would love to come home with a souvenir Sunday.
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