What Saints’ Malcolm Jenkins had to overcome to build social activist legacy

NFL

METAIRIE, La. — Malcolm Jenkins was driven to make an impact in the community at a young age.

He had just finished his first NFL season with the New Orleans Saints in 2010 when he and his mother, Gwendolyn, started a charitable foundation focused on youth in underserved communities. That same year, Malcolm, who was 22, became involved in tackling the issue of gun violence in New Orleans.

Jenkins never set out to become one of the sports world’s most visible social activists. But his outlook changed in 2016, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police officers and Colin Kaepernick first sat, then kneeled, during the national anthem.

“All of a sudden, I found myself in a place where I was prepared to step up. I was just like, ‘OK, enough is enough.’ Like, ‘I don’t want to just tweet. I don’t want to wear a T-shirt,'” said Jenkins, who was with the Philadelphia Eagles at the time. “And that was a lifetime of, you know, people planting seeds and people pruning me.

“And then I found myself ready to be a leader, not only on the field, not only for myself, but for the community. And I credit that to everybody who has been a part of my upbringing.”

Jenkins and his efforts have never been more in the spotlight than today, when the Black Lives Matter movement has taken center stage in the national dialogue after the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, among others, and the ensuing protests across the country.

The 32-year-old recently became a political analyst for CNN. And his production company Listen Up Media just released the documentary “Black Boys” — his first as an executive producer.

He has continued his work as co-founder of the Players Coalition, a group of NFL player activists that has now expanded to other sports. He was in the spotlight this summer when he shared an emotional video directing criticism toward teammate Drew Brees after Brees’ comments about protesting during the national anthem. And Jenkins is the only Saints player who has elected not to stand with the team on the sideline during the anthem through the first two games of this season.

But whether you’re inspired or infuriated by Jenkins, the most surprising thing about him is that he says it doesn’t come naturally to him to be in this spotlight.

Jenkins describes himself as an introvert and readily admits that everything he has tackled on and off the field can be “quite frankly draining.” And he began seeing a therapist on a weekly basis in 2016 when he became a leading voice in the campaign toward racial equality and social justice because he was putting a lot of pressure on himself to be “Superman in all these different places” — on the field, at his businesses, at home and in the community.

“It’s a lot easier for me to be a leader and vocal on the field. That’s where a lot of my personality comes out, and I’ve been a captain on every team that I’ve been on since I’ve started this game. But stepping out more into the public eye and being kind of a voice in that regard definitely took a lot of preparation — and really, I think, courage,” the three-time Pro Bowler said.

“Just to fight my own battles, to unlock or free my own mind, to detach myself from the criticisms that we’re ‘just athletes’ and don’t have anything to contribute to the conversation or that we’re not the experts, we don’t know enough. It took me a minute to break out of that.”

Benjamin Watson — a teammate of Jenkins’ for one year in New Orleans and a member of the Players Coalition who has also become a leading voice on social issues — can sympathize.

“Well, as a fellow introvert, I understand 100% what he’s saying. It drains you to talk in public. But sometimes you have something to say that’s important. … And so you are compelled to lead in a certain way, whether you feel like it or not.”

Jenkins’ mother, who serves as president and CEO of the charitable foundation they started together in 2010, said she sees “aspects” of her son being an introvert.

“But isn’t there a term for someone — is it ‘omnivert’? Someone who can be both, depending on the circumstances,” said Gwendolyn, who said she would describe herself, Malcolm’s father, Lee, and Malcolm’s brothers in a similar way. “But I think he recognizes the power of his voice, and he has an opportunity to make such an impact and difference in the lives of others. And if the cost is just being uncomfortable, outside of your comfort zone, then that’s one he’s willing to pay.”

The cost of leadership

Jenkins has drawn considerable backlash on both sides of the movement — from those who simply disagree with his causes to those who accused him of being a “sellout” for agreeing to work with the NFL.

Jenkins was at the heart of a public splinter in the Players Coalition in 2017, when Kaepernick’s friend, Eric Reid, and others disagreed with the way Jenkins was leading a movement they felt Kaepernick had started. Reid criticized Jenkins for accepting an $89 million pledge from the NFL toward social causes, believing more should have been demanded as the league was trying to put an end to anthem demonstrations.

Jenkins credits an invaluable support system with helping him to manage the stresses of his high-profile role. And, as detailed in a recent SC Featured profile with ESPN analyst Ryan Clark, Jenkins has been heavily influenced by the strong women in his life.

That support system also includes his weekly therapy sessions. Jenkins told ESPN Eagles reporter Tim McManus he began seeing a therapist because he felt as if he was battling anxiety and depression, especially when the controversy started over the anthem protests.

“For me to be worth anything to anybody else to lead, I’ve recognized that I’ve had to take care of myself as well and really prioritize my own health and mental well-being,” Jenkins explained. “And so part of that is talking to a therapist every week because it’s not only the pressure of what’s going on in society or leading these different things, but just our job as athletes being in the public light, being in a performance-based business where your performance is your livelihood.

“A lot of that causes pressure, and these are the things that we usually don’t talk about as men, as Black men, as football players. But it’s necessary because a lot of us deal with anxiety, a lot of us deal with depression. And I’m no exception to that.”

Watson recognizes the cost of stepping into the spotlight on social justice issues.

“It takes a lot of time, it takes money, there’s a lot of sacrifice there with putting yourself out there and talking about these issues, being the face of it, going and meeting with people,” Watson said. “It’s a commitment.”

‘Prepared to step up’

Once Jenkins became involved in the fight for social justice, he was all-in.

He joined former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin in creating the Players Coalition. He began meeting with local politicians and grassroots organizations, participated in police ride-alongs and attended bail hearings. He helped organize a “Listen and Learn” tour with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and some of his teammates to share what he had learned.

He began raising his fist during the anthem in 2016 (but only after seeking the blessing of an Air Force sergeant he had befriended in New Orleans).

And in one of his most memorable and powerful acts in 2018, Jenkins silently addressed a group of reporters in Philadelphia by holding up a series of signs that read, “You aren’t listening” and detailed facts about the criminal justice system, police-involved shootings and the efforts being made by fellow players in the community.

Watson, who was part of those early text threads and phone calls with Jenkins and Boldin and other players who wanted to find a way to make a difference, said what he appreciates most about the way they’ve led the Players Coalition is that they have demonstrated tangible ways everyone can get involved in their communities.

“You listen to them talk, they always say, ‘We’re not the experts. Here are the experts. I’m gonna learn from them,'” Watson said. “You know, players take a beating sometimes for speaking out on certain issues that may not be popular with fans or certain demographics, whatever it is. But no one can say, ‘OK, you guys talk about it, but you don’t do anything.’ Even though you have a right to simply talk — everybody has a right to simply talk.

“But for some reason it’s always, ‘Well, what are you all doing?’ ‘Well, this is what we’re doing. We had a meeting with this person, we brought the commissioner here, we brought [team owners] here, we wrote this op-ed, we learned about this, we held this town hall meeting.’ And so, he’s allowed other people to build that. … I’m really proud of what they’ve put together and proud to be a part of it myself.”

Jenkins won the NFL Players Association’s Byron “Whizzer” White Award for his community efforts in 2017. He was the Eagles’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee in 2019.

“I’m definitely proud of kind of being a part of that initial groundwork. But I’m also energized, because of how many other people have obviously joined this movement and fight for social justice and demanding that things change significantly and rapidly,” Jenkins said. “Myself and a lot of other people sacrificed a lot to kind of lay that groundwork, and really stood on the shoulders that came before us. And I think we’re at a moment right now where we can significantly push that agenda forward.”

Building a legacy

Jenkins, who recently accepted a Harvard fellowship to study the history and causes of the wealth gap between Blacks and whites in America, said he has always been compelled by a burning desire to know why.

“Once you know better, you do better,” Jenkins said.

It’s the same quality that made him a team captain as a young nickelback during his first stint with the Saints from 2009 to 2013. Coaches such as Sean Payton and Gregg Williams always described him as the one who was relentlessly studying film when the hallways were dark and they were packing up for the night.

And it’s the same quality that turned him from a three-star recruit to a star at Ohio State, a first-round draft choice, a Super Bowl champion for the Saints and the Eagles and the one player Payton always regretted letting out of the building as a free agent.

“He’s very professional. I’ll call him, like, a suit-and-tie guy,” said Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who organized several players around the league to send a powerful video message about the need for social change this summer. “He takes care of his business. You can see it when he walks in the building, and then just how he’s able to play the game at a high level and still bring change to the world that’s needed. His voice is real powerful.”

Jenkins’ work is far from over. It will last long after he is done playing. But he said he has been encouraged by the momentum the cause has gained this year.

“If people know me more for what I do off the field than on the field, I think that’s a win for my life,” Jenkins said, though he was quick to point out that he takes pride in being “a damn good football player.”

“So that lets me know at least I’m heading in the right direction,” Jenkins said in the SC Featured profile. “While the impact on the field I have is very important to me and it’s what I love to do — I love this game and love playing it — I’m actually very OK with me being known more for my contributions to society and to the game.”

Jenkins’ parents agreed, saying that of course they’re proud of his accomplishments as a football player but that the impact he can have off the field can “make a difference for generations to come.”

“His activism will stand the test of time,” Lee said. “It will be part of his legacy.”

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