How Malcolm Jenkins turned Philadelphia into a hub for NFL's social activism

NFL protests starting to look different (6:51)

Jason Reid and Don Van Natta Jr. join OTL to discuss the protests by NFL players and how teams are adjusting to the times. (6:51)

PHILADELPHIA -- Over the past year-and-a-half, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins has evolved into the leader of the NFL Players Coalition.

The group of more than 50 men -- through a combination of demonstrating on the field during the national anthem and organized efforts behind the scenes -- has driven a movement that has grown in force. The players now have a seat at the negotiating table opposite the league's power brokers and have captured something that rarely gets out of the owners' grips: leverage.

The league wants the protests to stop. The players are protesting against social injustice and racial inequality and have a plan to provide a platform for those issues to replace the anthem protests.

Jenkins has helped take the emotions that boiled over when two black men were shot and killed by police officers on consecutive nights in July 2016 -- and the subsequent protests that then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started -- and channeled it in a purposeful manner to help effectuate real change. Philadelphia has become the command center for social activism in the NFL. Jenkins often leads the communication efforts across the league -- from text chains to conference calls to meetings -- and has transformed all of the passions and personalities of the players into one voice with one message, which he often is called on to deliver.

"He's been extraordinary when it comes to communicating with the players across the league in terms of trying to get out the specific message, trying to enact change, trying to get actionable items, trying to create this entity that we've been forming. So he's been at the head of all of it, honestly," Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said. "I would kind of relate it to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, the difference between those guys. He's handled it with grace. He's been very open and very respectful and also very productive when we've had those conversations."

The decision to protest

Before he could protest in front of the American flag that covers the field on game day, Jenkins first had to account for the one that stares back at him in his own home.

The decision to join Kaepernick in protest by raising his right fist above his head during the anthem -- a gesture that he has performed since Week 2 of the 2016 season -- was not made lightly. Jenkins has friends and family in the military; his grandfather served. If he was going to demonstrate, he first wanted permission from Tech. Sgt. Edileerto Malave.

Jenkins and Malave, an Air Force flight engineer, met at a Wounded Warriors fundraiser in Pensacola, Florida, while Jenkins was playing for the New Orleans Saints. Less than a year before that encounter, in June 2012, Malave was involved in an Osprey crash during a training exercise in the Florida panhandle. Everyone in the crew survived, but Malave suffered a number of injuries, including a broken and dislocated right ankle, a broken left knee, a broken arm, a cracked vertebrae and a sizable wound to his forehead. He was in the hospital for seven weeks and did not walk for three months.

Jenkins invited Malave to Saints camp that spring. Jenkins routinely called him to check on his recovery and thank him for his service, Malave said. They grew close. Malave returned to flying status about a year after the crash and went on to do two tours -- one in Africa and one in Southwest Asia. The first time he was deployed, he flew a flag for Jenkins during a mission -- a term of appreciation in the aviator world in which the recipient gets a certificate signed by the crew that says where the flag was flown and under what operation.

"I gave it to him and he was very surprised and very humbled by it," Malave said.

Malave later visited Jenkins' home and saw the flag was displayed in his "man room" under the television.

"I asked him if it was the flag that I flew for him," Malave said, "and he said, 'Yeah,' and that he keeps it right under the TV, so anybody that's watching TV sees the flag and the question pops up, 'What's the significance of the flag?'"

Jenkins explained the significance.

"Before I made the decision to ever protest, I called [Malave], told him what I was thinking about doing and got his approval," Jenkins said. "I've got a lot of respect for what those service members do for us, the sacrifices they make. It's one that needs to be honored and lifted up, and I plan on fully participating in honoring them throughout this point.

"[The protests have] never been about the military. It's never been about the flag."

Taking a clear stance

Still, Jenkins was not in favor of Kaepernick's form of demonstration, at first. He had his own connection to the military and believed protesting during the anthem would be interpreted as "shaming the flag, shaming the country," and "the injustices that are being done to minorities all across this country, that's not what's going to be in the headlines. It's going to be about [Kaepernick]."

His take was pretty much spot on. But the 29-year-old Jenkins "could feel in my spirit that this was a pivotal moment in time," and the shooting deaths of Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and Dallas police officers in consecutive days demanded more than a passive response. "Hash-tagging and posting videos [on social media] is not going to get it done," he said.

Other players in the Eagles locker room and around the NFL felt the same way. Sensing this, Philadelphia defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz held an open forum in the meeting room in August 2016 to discuss the events and Kaepernick's response. According to multiple players in the room, Jenkins and fellow veteran defensive back Leodis McKelvin were among those who spoke up. Unexpectedly, so too did an undrafted rookie linebacker by the name of Myke Tavarres out of a private university in Texas called Incarnate Word.

"And of course, me being the only rookie speaking up, everybody's looking at me like, 'Hey, what are you doing? What are you saying? Who the hell are you?' type thing," Tavarres said recently.

Emotions were running high as the defensive players exited the meeting. Approached at his locker stall, Tavarres told ESPN a short time later that he planned on sitting during the national anthem for the Eagles' upcoming preseason finale against the New York Jets. He would have been the first player to join Kaepernick in demonstrating.

"Really what's at stake is my pride, and what kind of man would I be, and what kind of African-American would I be, if I didn't stand my ground on this issue we have today?" Tavarres said at the time.

"[It] needs to be done. Will there be backlash? Probably. I don't think anyone has bought my jersey yet, so I don't know if it's going to be burned, but it's a major issue, and I'm definitely going to stand my ground for this one."

Tavarres said once his intentions got out, "You could feel the dynamic completely shift." His agent scrambled into action, advising Tavarres to change his stance. Just hours after his initial declaration, Tavarres issued an apology, saying he did not want to be a distraction and he planned on standing for the anthem, which he did.

Tavarres was released as the team trimmed its roster down to 53 players. He had a couple of tryouts but never latched on with a team. He now is an assistant linebackers coach at Incarnate Word, staying in shape in case an NFL team calls. He was viewed as a long shot to make the Eagles, but Jenkins recognized through Tavarres' experience the need for organization and a structured support system.

"That was kind of the awakening moment for me," Jenkins said. "I wanted to try to organize guys in order to protect some guys who didn't have the same security as me.

"That's what led me to start talking to leaders on other teams, kind of coordinating communication and ultimately staging my own protest soon thereafter. It definitely played a big part in me getting involved in the protests, in general, just because I felt like if there were going to be guys on the team that express interest in getting involved that I needed to be out in front of them in order to kind of protect them."

Jenkins proceeded to dive into the social issues to assist in change. He opened a line of communication with the Philadelphia police department and participated in a ridealong. He visited prisons, met with grass-roots organizations and public defenders and attended bail hearings.

Once properly educated, Jenkins and coalition co-leader Anquan Boldin began meeting with politicians to champion for bills that address criminal justice reform, such as the Clean Slate Act, which would use technology to automatically seal certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor convictions after 10 years in the hopes of reducing the recidivism rate. He helped organize a "Listen and Learn" tour with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and some of his teammates at the start of this season to give them a glimpse of the world that he had immersed himself in over the previous year-plus.

"If you don't dig in and do your research on what he's doing, you might just think he's putting his fist up on Sunday, but when you look at the things he's doing, he kind of wears two hats," said Eagles defensive end Chris Long, who has placed his arm around Jenkins during the anthem as a sign of support since the events in his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. "He's wearing the hat of a football player and also somebody who is a criminal justice reform expert. I mean, he's not an expert yet, but I think he could hang with anybody as far as his knowledge on the topics he's talking about and the things he wants to accomplish. And I think he takes a really good approach.

"I don't believe that [demonstrating] is the barometer for caring about these issues. But certainly if you do, I hope you're putting your money where your mouth is, you're putting effort in. OK, you're showing that you want to improve something, now go and improve it. Malcolm is the gold standard for that in my opinion. He's a patriotic person. He loves the country. He loves it so much, he wants to improve it."

His ascension to the position of leader, Jenkins concludes, is directly related to the amount of legwork he has put in. The process he went through serves as a blueprint that didn't exist previously. It is now being followed in different cities around the NFL.

"I've kind of taken all these steps and I've been able to present plans to other guys," Jenkins said. "And I think because of that, a lot of people default to what we do here, what I've done here in Philly with Chris, with Rodney [McLeod], with Torrey [Smith], because it's something people can grasp, they understand, they know the direction that we're going and what we're trying to get accomplished. So I think that's one of the reasons why: Because I've been able to lead by example."

In order to do so, Jenkins has had to take on a second, demanding full-time job, while making sure his performance on the field does not slip. He admits that his role -- taken on out of a sense of responsibility, more than anything else -- is "taxing," but he believes the coalition's efforts have been worthwhile and are close to bearing fruit.

"To fast-forward to where we are today, it's pretty epic from a movement standpoint," Jenkins said. "Not necessarily much has changed, but there's definitely a different environment."