HAYES: Football world turns its head toward Philadelphia for latest chapter in anthem saga

Philly.com (TNS)
  • Thursday night, the Philadelphia Eagles play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a preseason game.
  • The Eagles are the defending Super Bowl champions.
  • Malcom Jenkins and Michael Bennett have not said if they will protest during the national anthem.

Thursday night we find out what comes next.

Philadelphia Eagles' Malcolm Jenkins during NFL football training camp Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2018 in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Malcolm Jenkins’ leadership and the Eagles’ Super Bowl success have made Philadelphia the epicenter of player protests for social justice — an issue that was healing nicely, if imperfectly.

Then in May, in a move that showed remarkable idiocy even for the NFL, the owners tore the scab from that still-seeping wound by instituting draconian penalties for protesting during the anthem. For a workforce that operates under a collective bargaining agreement, the rules seemed to clearly violate labor laws. Worse, the rules ruined any hope that the protesters — most of whom had stopped protesting — would ever trust the NFL again.

When the Eagles host the Steelers on Thursday night we’ll find out what comes next.

Will Jenkins, the movement’s foremost spokesman, raise his fist again?

“I’m not sure yet,” Jenkins said Monday after practice, sweating freely in the 90-degree shade. “I honestly haven’t thought about it.”

Will former Seahawks defensive lineman Michael Bennett, now and Eagle, continue to sit out the anthem? That’s how this all got started, when 49ers backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick was spotted sitting during the anthem before a 2016 preseason game.

“I haven’t thought about it, either,” Bennett said. “Ask me another day.”

That day will be Thursday, since both Jenkins and Bennett said they won’t decide what they will do until Wednesday at the earliest. Players are not available to the press after Tuesday.

They should protest: They should protest, of course. It would cause a new headache for the NFL, and it’s a headache the NFL deserves.

After Jenkins and Players Coalition co-founder Anquan Boldin negotiated an $89 million commitment from the NFL to further social change in November, the NFL tried to implement an anthem policy that was not collectively bargained. The NFL Players Association filed a grievance in July, and both sides agreed that the league would not enforce its new policy while the sides negotiated. That’s where things stand.

Jenkins said the Players Coalition might make a statement concerning the matter.

“We will probably have an op-ed or something drop Wednesday,” he said. We? “The Players Coalition.”

That sounds juicy.

Jenkins is the Eagles’ player representative to the NFLPA but he is not part of the 11-player executive board, which is involved in negotiating an anthem policy. Jenkins said Monday he was not privy to the state of the negotiations. However, he will make a few calls before he makes his decision Thursday night.

“I definitely want to know where they stand,” Jenkins said.

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2017, file photo, Philadelphia Eagles' Chris Long (56) is shown during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals in Philadelphia.

Protest could spark movement in talks: A protest by the most decorated members of the world champion’s defensive unit certainly would spark a little movement in the talks, especially if Chris Long, who is white, continues to stand alongside Jenkins and support him. Jenkins is a diplomat, more comfortable talking about these issues while wearing a bowtie than a neck roll, and so he is especially dismayed by this moment. Before the league betrayed them, Jenkins and most of the players in the coalition didn’t consider protesting to be an issue this season.

“It wouldn’t be,” said Jenkins.

He shifted his helmet to his left hand to free his right to gesture and stroke his beard — a sign he is warming to a subject that irritates him.

“It would have moved to a point where we were working together to draw some awareness to these issues and put some more action to the effort to amplify what players are taking about,” he continued. “Talking out of both sides (of their mouth) on behalf of the owners has put players in a place where we don’t trust the league’s intentions, and we don’t trust the intentions of the owners.”

Lurie has supported his players: All eyes look to Philadelphia this week. Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said last year he supports protesters who protest with a clear plan in mind, which perfectly describes Jenkins, Long and, now, Bennett — though Lurie has not followed the lead of Jets and Giants executives who say they will not punish protesters if the league’s new rules stay in place. Then again, courage isn’t exactly a hallmark of NFL ownership.

The league’s strong-arm posturing happened even as some owners, the Players Coalition and several independent players took steps to chip away at the social injustices that are the target of the protests. Several players cooperated with league-produced public service announcements this offseason, Jenkins said. Both sides were involved in endorsing social reform legislation in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York and Ohio … even as the owners tried to bring the players to heel.

“Obviously, it’s hard for players to buy in to what they’re doing,” Jenkins said.

Pet project: Jenkins’ pet project this summer involved highlighting the importance of fair-minded district attorneys, and that meant sending Coalition representatives to races in California, Maryland and Massachusetts, but Jenkins’ activities are just a drop in a very large bucket. Players from all over the league have begun following the lead of Jenkins and the Coalition.

“Guys have been very active. Guys are starting to find different avenues, different ways they can contribute,” Jenkins said. “People are beginning to see this is bigger than just the two minutes of the national anthem.”

They were beginning to see things more comprehensively — until the NFL decided, for no good reason, to shake the hornets’ nest.

Now, we see what’s next.