Philadelphia Eagles safety Rodney McLeod has emerged as one of the team's leading voices on the social justice front, taking the baton from New Orleans Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins after years working alongside him in the Philadelphia community.
McLeod, 29, was seen in the streets for the Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd's killing, recruiting teammates to join him, and was heard during what was described as a "powerful" team meeting on race relations earlier this month.
He virtually sat down with ESPN recently to discuss the racism he has experienced, including as a member of the Eagles since 2016, his plans to protest during the 2020 season, and the efforts he and his teammates are making to bring about change. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
What life experiences have made you an advocate for racial justice, and were there any encounters that impacted you?
I grew up in southeast D.C., and I've seen how the interaction is with police, right? When you're pulled over and you’re profiled because of the type of vehicle that you're driving, or because you're walking down a particular neighborhood wearing a certain clothing item that you're asked, "What are you doing around here?" It's difficult to understand for a lot of people if you don't necessarily experience it the way that so many of us have. Even to this day as a professional athlete, when I walk outside, out of that locker room and take off that shield, I'm a black man. No one knows me as Rodney McLeod, Super Bowl champion; whatever takes place in that restaurant or that encounter in the street or the moment that I'm pulled over, I have to act in such a way to protect my life and my family, and that's not the feeling that you should have. A lot of people have said, "Because you are an athlete, I'm sure you've never dealt with anything." I experienced racism right here in Philadelphia my first year, and it was it was sad to face.
What happened that first year?
I was at a local bar, and I wasn't getting served. I've been to countless bars, it's not new to me and I know how it works as a bartender. I waited my turn respectfully, and still I was looked over and passed countless laps -- myself and my friends that were with me, both male and female, so it didn't make a difference. I believe the lady made a comment after and said, "You need to just wait your turn?" And I said, "I have been waiting." I felt as if my skin complexion didn't, I guess, allow her to have a sense of urgency. I wasn't of importance at that moment for the past 15 minutes. It's mind-blowing to see that people view you as less. I had a conversation with management. I was trying to get my point across, raised my voice a little bit. And at that moment, she jumped back in fear. Because I guess as a black man, if I raise my voice that entails that I am aggressive and I'm going to take action. That wasn't the case at all.
What do you think this season will be like in how NFL players will get their messages out and what the dynamics are going to be like between players, management and owners?
What I do see is a lot of my peers speaking on these issues that are very relevant to our families, us personally, our communities back where we're from. I don't think it ends here. It continues because we have this amazing platform. And the NFL is represented by I think over 75% African Americans. We represent the sport. And so it's important for us, and I think owners have to accept that and need to stand alongside their players, as well as the league. It's a challenge to all of them. And I know one gentleman who is committed, and that's [Eagles] owner Jeffrey Lurie. He's always done an amazing job. We had a meeting a couple of weeks ago. It was important for him to be on that call for us to hear what he had to say. We're taking steps to take action as a team, and to show unity and to exemplify what that looks like. I think the Philadelphia Eagles have always done a good job at that at showing brotherhood and togetherness.
What player or message from that meeting resonated with you the most?
I would say a couple. [Eagles receiver] DeSean Jackson, he spoke, very heartfelt, and he spoke from a place of [growing up in] L.A. where he knows family members who witnessed the Rodney King incident, and allowed us to get a close glimpse of his life and what he's experienced, but then also what he wants to see and wants to see us do as an organization. And then, of course, Carson [Wentz] and Zach [Ertz] both issued statements, but then they spoke again that day. ... I respect those guys for taking the time to want to learn, but then to also listen.
What is the significance of having a white, high-profile quarterback speak out in that respect?
It's all about what's in your mind and what's in your heart. And his mind and heart is in a good place. And so it meant a lot as a black man on the team, his brother, for him to speak out, but then also reach out to me personally. He's actually been hounding me to jump on a call this past week to learn a bit more and how he can help. ... And those two men I can point out, as well as [Eagles kicker] Jake Elliott. I actually invited him out to a protest, for him to just get a closer glimpse at what we're actually fighting for. He responded quickly, and he showed up. That's what you want to see.
Do you share Malcolm Jenkins' sentiment on Colin Kaepernick -- whether it be an apology or a roster spot -- that the NFL's words right now don't mean much?
He was one of the first to draw attention to what we're speaking on and talking about right now: police brutality and systemic racism. He explained himself many times and still his voice was not heard, and then after a while it was forced into silence, which is sad to see because maybe if we continued advocating for a lot of these issues, would George Floyd still be alive? We don't know how much progress we could have made. ... It's important to acknowledge Kaepernick and his efforts, because he did sacrifice. My hat goes off to him and I'm hoping that they do something. [In a conversation with Mike Greenberg for ESPN's The Return of Sports special on Monday night, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said it would be up to a team to sign Kaepernick and said he welcomes Kaepernick's voice on discussions of social issues.]
Do you think Kaepernick gets on a team this year?
Even being removed for four or five years, I'm sure he still can play the game as we witnessed in his workouts, but I'm not sure if he would like to reenter the league, honestly. I'm not sure after all that he's been through.
You're making a lot of efforts off the field. Can you talk about the virtual camp for kids on June 20?
I had a conversation with my wife and my mom about it. They just told me, you have to give these kids something to look forward to because so much has been taken away, and you have to be the one to encourage and uplift. My wife, at 5 p.m. every day, she's on virtual workouts with her trainers. And we're doing the same thing [with the Eagles]. So why can't we recreate that for these kids? I'm trying to find a little piece of light. This camp can do that for some kids. We've had people from Florida, Alabama, L.A. that I've seen on the list. The amount of kids that have signed up [350 as of last week], it's amazing to see. I'm gonna give them everything I got -- and from my roof deck. We didn't decide to go to a field. We want to be one with these kids and knowing that everybody does not have access to a field. So if it's your basement, if it's your living room, if it's the backyard or front yard, we're there; you got the phone, camera, the link, and we're just gonna have a blast.
You're also doing a lot with your organization, Change Our Future. What are you prioritizing there?
We formed Change Our Future for this very reason: to support and improve communities. Our focus is to remove barriers in education, health care and civic engagement.
One of the things that we want to initially do is get African American Studies back into the curriculum in these schools. ... The only time that it is brought up, unfortunately, is during Black History Month. I was actually talking to [Eagles tight end] Dallas Goedert yesterday and he told me the first time he came across a full African American male was [in] college -- so how can someone in this world understand the evolution of African Americans if 1) they don't even exist in their communities, but then 2) they don't even learn about it in school? We're going to take some time and talk to a few city officials and representatives, particularly here in Philadelphia, to begin to take the steps necessary to insert this into the curriculum very soon because we think it's important.