In an unprecedented move for a major professional sports league, the NFL has proposed partnering with its players to effect social justice change, though not all players are in agreement on the proposal.
On Monday, the league submitted to players the final draft of a proposal that, according to documents reviewed by ESPN, would contribute nearly $100 million to causes considered important to African-American communities. The NFL hopes this effort will effectively end the peaceful-yet-controversial movement that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick started when he refused to stand for the national anthem last season.
Players are expected to discuss the offer during a scheduled conference call Wednesday night.
However, some players who have actively protested since 2016 are displeased with the NFL's approach and plan to break from the Players Coalition, a group of roughly 40 players who negotiated with the league office, over how its leaders have handled negotiations. Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin are regarded as the leaders of the coalition.
"The Players Coalition was supposed to be formed as a group that represents NFL Athletes who have been silently protesting social injustices and racism," Thomas and Reid said via Twitter. "However, Malcolm and Anquan can no longer speak on our behalf as we don't believe the coalition's beliefs are in our best interests as a whole."
Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills said he has "a ton of respect" for Jenkins and Boldin. But according to Stills, there has been lack of communication within the group, as the NFL primarily communicated with the Players Coalition through Jenkins and Boldin.
"We were trying to work together and bring all the players together to work together. It just hasn't been going that way," Stills explained. "We don't feel like everyone was getting the same voice. That's Malcolm and Anquan's thing, and it was always their thing. Respectfully, we're going to let them go on with what they're doing. We're just saying that we're not going to have them speak for us."
Regardless, the NFL has made its pitch, and although there is no quid pro quo, the hope is that the league's commitment will create an environment in which players will no longer want to protest.
The NFL's multifaceted offer earmarks at least $89 million over a seven-year period for both national and local projects, according to the documents. On the national level, owners this year would allocate $5 million, with their commitment growing annually and maxing out at $12 million per year from 2021 through 2023. At the local level, owners would put up $250,000 annually and expect players to match that amount, totaling $500,000 for each team. Players and owners can exceed that amount if they choose, with no matching requirement.
In addition, there would be other fundraising opportunities, including telethons and auctions of jerseys worn in games.
Reid told ESPN that Jenkins had conversations with the NFL without him or Michael Thomas being involved. Reid also claims Jenkins told the NFL the players would end demonstrations if money was donated by the league to certain initiatives.
"That was never discussed at any point. I feel like I've been misled," Reid said. "I won't accuse Malcolm of directly lying to me, because I don't think he's that type of guy. But I will say he's misled us. And shoot, if that's what lying is, then that's what it is."
Jenkins responded to ESPN: "They understood the entire scope of the plan. The last time we had conversations with Goodell and Troy Vincent, Michael Thomas and Eric Reid were on that call. They understood the proposal. What we didn't have was a conversation with players in the coalition based on some of the responses that we got from the league. We then talked about myself contracting Troy Vincent just to give them some updates on some of our feedback, which I did. That call did not have Mike or Eric on it. Everybody kind of agreed to that."
Jenkins said the squabble has been "disappointing."
"For this to now be less about the actual work and more about who wants to be in the forefront or be the leader is disappointing," he said. "It's especially disappointing for us to hear this in the media and now be put in a position where we have to answer all of these questions. All of these conversations could have been between us as players. It's a little bit disappointing."
Reid, the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick, has had major concerns about how the Players Coalition has operated under the direction of Jenkins and Boldin. Reid said he believes the process could have been more transparent.
"Myself and other protesting players are departing from the Players Coalition because we aren't satisfied with the structure of the Players Coalition and the communication that's been happening between Malcolm and the NFL," Reid said on the phone late Tuesday night. "Myself and the aforementioned protesting players have voiced these concerns numerous times to Malcolm concerning the structure of the organization and how we want to be involved more with the NFL in those communications. It has not transpired."
If the players accept the NFL's offer, owners would still have to vote to finalize a deal during the annual league meetings in March.
Commissioner Roger Goodell, who for months shepherded the process while overcoming numerous obstacles, is believed to have the support of ownership, which is eager to end the most divisive issue facing the league.
Many fans have cited the protests as a reason for tuning out the NFL. Players, in turn, have expressed frustration about the false narrative pushed by those opposed to their methods -- that players have demonstrated during the anthem specifically to disrespect the flag, the military and the government and its institutions.
Goodell has walked a tightrope, pushing back against hard-line owners such as the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones, who vowed to bench any player who protests, while hurrying to reach an agreement that would allay the concerns of the league's corporate partners about ongoing fan backlash. With significant assistance from Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, Goodell offered the players a package that puts the NFL way ahead of the NBA, NHL and MLB in providing resources to address social justice issues.
National funding would be allocated accordingly: 25 percent to the United Negro College Fund, 25 percent to Dream Corps and 50 percent to the Players Coalition, which has filed 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) paperwork for nonprofit status as a fiscally sponsored project. This week, the coalition hired the Hopewell Fund to oversee and advise the group, which hopes to work with grassroots and nonprofit organizations in its areas of focus.
Under the proposal, money at both the national and local level would provide grants for nonprofit organizations focused on law enforcement and community relations, criminal justice reform and education reform.
A working group of five players, five owners (or owners' representatives) and two NFL staff members would help identify future initiatives to pursue.
The total package appears to be a major victory for players. The financial commitment is the largest the league has ever made to a public cause, surpassing Salute to Service, breast cancer awareness/Crucial Catch and NFL Play 60. For a league that has historically held the upper hand on its players, it's a significant change in tenor.
Although Reid acknowledged that the NFL is willing to make a significant financial commitment, he takes issue with how Jenkins has handled the negotiations and questioned whether players have truly received the owners' best offer under the circumstances.
"Malcolm continues to have conversations on his own with the NFL, and the Players Coalition is his organization," Reid said. "When we agreed to be a part of the Players Coalition, we were under the impression that it would be our organization. We were under the impression that we would all have equal say in that organization.
"But we've come to find out that it's actually Malcolm and Anquan's organization. Nobody else really has a stake in the organization. Malcolm actually wants us to -- he calls it invest, I call it donate -- to the company to pay salaries for his staff. But again, we would have no equity in the organization."
The NFL initially included a large group of players on conference calls as it attempted to slog through the divisive issue. As the unwieldy process dragged on, however, Goodell and Vincent determined it would be best to formally consult with fewer players.
For Goodell and Vincent, Jenkins and Boldin were obvious go-to guys.
Active in pursuing criminal justice reform, Jenkins and Boldin have acquitted themselves well in high-profile situations. And the Players Coalition stepped out front in August, challenging the league to get off the sideline and help players.
But for weeks, Reid said, he has privately expressed concerns to Jenkins about a lack of transparency from the head of a group the league clearly views as the key to reaching a deal.
"Malcolm had this conversation with the NFL without talking to us," Reid said.
Also, Reid said the process is moving too fast.
"Roger Goodell told us on one of the phone calls that I was a part of that the proposal, the ideas that we were talking about, would not be voted on by ownership until March. There's still plenty of time to keep talking about issues," Reid said. "I started protesting to raise awareness around these issues.
"If the situation changed to where I felt that there was a better way to raise that awareness, or a better way to effect change besides protesting, then I would stop. The NFL is trying to come through on that, but I think they've been going about it the wrong way."
The players who no longer back the Players Coalition intend to remain active in their communities, promoting what's important to them. During that process, Reid can lean on a friend.
"I speak with Colin almost every day," Reid said. "He's getting things set with his nonprofit. I may just work with him."
No matter the outcome of the owners' vote in March, Reid still plans to continue to push for racial equality and is among a group of players who will likely continue to protest.