Amid a renaissance of athlete activism, the NFC champions rate among the league leaders of the new social awareness
The questions were good.
That’s what top Philadelphia civil rights attorney David Rudovsky thought as he listened to Philadelphia Eagles players Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Torrey Smith and Rodney McLeod interrogate city leaders. This was late last September and Rudovsky had been invited to a meeting with Philadelphia’s police commissioner, local activists and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to discuss the racial inequality issues raised when former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the national anthem in 2016.
Already that day the players had met with the city’s police commissioner and spent more than an hour watching bail hearings, some of what they saw troubled them and they wanted answers.
Why was bail set at $50,000 for a black man with no prior record while others were allowed to walk free?
When do officers decide to use stop and frisk?
Does the public defender’s office get enough resources?
“They were asking pretty substantive questions,” Rudovsky told the Guardian this week. “I was very impressed with the way (the players) were putting in the effort. The level of questioning was quite good.”
It was not something Rodovsky, who also teaches law at the University of Pennsylvania, had come to expect from professional athletes. He had heard some of the players on this Eagles team were taking an interest in social causes, but to sit with them that day, to feel their passion and see the depth of their knowledge was something else.
“They are serious,” he thought.
A word spreading through American sports is “woke”, as in athletes are finally awakening to the world around them. For years, woke has been used in the African American community to describe a new social awareness, but now professional athletes – once fearful of damaging their earning potential by talking about anything contentious – are sounding woke. LeBron James has become woke. The Seattle Seahawks have been woke. And somewhere in the last two years the Eagles became woke, too.
Perhaps there is a correlation between speaking out and winning. James is a three-time NBA champion. The outspoken Seahawks went to two consecutive Super Bowls, winning one. Now the Eagles have gone from back-to-back losing seasons to the Super Bowl. It used to be that athletes were expected to “stick to sports” biting their tongues on controversial issues lest their cries be seen as a distraction from winning. But the more Eagles players like Jenkins, Long, Smith and McLeod spoke up the better the team played.
The Eagles locker room is a fascinating place, one where players seem able to express themselves – something often lost in the NFL’s authoritarian culture. Just as Jenkins, Long, Smith and McLeod felt free to talk about racial equality, another player, receiver Marcus Johnson, was baptized in the team hotel’s swimming pool before a game. Few football coaches, no matter how faithful, would approve of any team activity that can take away from a focus on the game. And yet the Eagles Doug Pederson has … and it has worked.
“The hope is that we never reduce someone to just a doer,” Michael Gervais, a renowned performance psychologist who has worked with the Seahawks told the Guardian in 2016. “We want them to feel as if they are full humans and they have a meaningful purpose in their life. We want to amplify that in the most human way possible. It’s not easy because that is what the media does not want to hear or the public might not want to hear.”
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll asked Gervais to advise his players, believing that if they developed their values and personalities they would be better on the field. There is no great evidence the Eagles are pushing their players in the same direction, but when several of them started speaking about controversial issues, the team did not resist as many would.
Monday, Long said he would not attend the traditional championship reception with president Donald Trump at the White House should Philadelphia win the Super Bowl on Sunday. He skipped last year’s as well when he was a member of the Eagles’ Super Bowl opponent, the New England Patriots. But Long’s biggest statement this year might have come in August when he became one of the first white players to support the anthem protests by placing a hand on Jenkins’s shoulder as Jenkins held a raised fist during the anthem.
“I’m here for you,” Long said he told Jenkins.
Football coaches are constantly using words like “family” and “unity” with their players. Pulling together teams of more than 50 men, including practice squads, with all those players coming from diverse backgrounds is a challenge. Usually testy subjects like race are avoided in hopes of creating a détente in the locker room. Somehow talking about them has worked in Philadelphia.
Some of the credit for the Eagles openness goes to former linebacker Connor Barwin, who immersed himself in local causes with his Make The World Better Foundation. Though Barwin is now with the Los Angeles Rams, his willingness to support causes like marriage equality while riding a bicycle around town, helped redefine the image of a football player.
Jenkins, a safety who is probably the Eagles defensive leader, continues to redraw those boundaries. He was one of the most vocal supporters of Kaepernick during the 2016 season and became a key member of the Players Coalition, a group of NFL stars who met with league executives to work on problems in the African American community. It was because of Jenkins, more than anyone else, that Rudovsky found himself in that room with the Eagles players, city leaders and Goodell last fall.
“These (players) are very sincere,” Rudovsky said. “They are very concerned about social justice issues in their community.”
Rudovsky never believed athletes had much interest in addressing social inequities, a perspective formed in the early 1990s when basketball star and Nike endorser Michael Jordan reportedly refused to endorse the opponent of openly racist Senator Jesse Helms in Jordan’s native North Carolina by saying: “Republicans buy sneakers, too.” Whether Jordan actually uttered these words is unclear but the way he protected his image, and his millions, became a blueprint for athletes to follow. Occasionally Rudovsky would hear of a Philadelphia athlete who would speak about an uncomfortable subject, yet such moments were rare.
But sports are changing. So too is Philadelphia. The current mayor James Kenney is a progressive who has pushed for policing reforms. The new district attorney was elected despite having sued the police department 75 times. Philadelphia also is a sanctuary city where people won’t be asked their immigration status and federal requests to detain undocumented immigrants won’t be met. It seems the perfect time and place for a football team to be woke.
Over the phone from his office, Rudovsky took a deep breath. The Eagles’ Super Bowl run has brought so much joy to his city. It’s hard to not be excited. Just as he, a civil rights attorney, is thrilled to see athletes care about causes for which he has dedicated his adult life. But in his glee there is a pause, because there is always a pause when athletes step from their assigned lanes.
“Now the question is: is this going to be sustained?” he said. “I think these guys will keep pushing for it and try to keep this going for more than six months.”
NFL locker rooms are transient places. Rosters shift dramatically from year to year. There are no guarantees the next group of Eagles will be as woke as this one. What Philadelphia has in its football team might be gone by next summer. The Super Bowl run could become a memory of the season a group of football players said they stood for something more than simply collecting checks and selling shoes.
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