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.