Editor's note: The original version of this column included an editing error that unintentionally misconstrued the writer's original message. We regret the error.
The Philadelphia Eagles got it mostly right this week when they called DeSean Jackson's anti-Semitic social media posts "offensive, harmful and absolutely appalling." The Eagles, however, left out an important thought, one that provides an educational moment at a time when athletes at all levels are speaking up about social justice as never before.
The posts were dangerously uninformed. They demonstrated not only a lack of understanding of what it means to be anti-Semitic but also a severe level of naivete about dark areas of the internet from which he and other social media users sometimes draw their content. In attempting to amplify what he interpreted as an example of Black subjugation, as he later suggested he was trying to do, Jackson instead elevated a fabricated quote attributed to Adolf Hitler and thus promoted a group that was connected to a deadly shooting rampage in a kosher market last year in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Jackson later implied that he didn't absorb the full meaning of the passage. Eric K. Ward, executive director of the Western States Center, a national civil rights organization, called that outcome a "system failure" of the social justice response in sports.
"It's clear to me that the real problem right now is that folks like DeSean Jackson are being exposed to this type of rhetoric and influenced by it," Ward said, "and no one has invested in educating players and their managers around the background of some of this. In many ways, it's certainly important to speak to his statement and his post and his rhetoric, but the truth is that we have a system failure here."
You might recall that on Monday night, Jackson posted two images on his Instagram story quoting Hitler as saying white Jews "will blackmail America. [They] will extort America, their plan for world domination won't work if the Negroes know who they are. The white citizens of America will be terrified to know that all this time they've been mistreating and discriminating and lynching the Children of Israel."
According to Snopes, there is no record of Hitler using that quote. Sleuthing by Shane Ryan, on his Apocalypse Sports blog, reveals that it appeared in a book published in 2018 and written by Jeremy Shorter, an author whose biography connects him to the Black Hebrew Israelites movement. The movement's ideology is that African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans -- not white Jews -- are the true children of God. Some factions are peaceful, but the Southern Poverty Law Center -- a leading advocate for justice -- designates 144 of them as hate groups because of their "anti-white and anti-Semitic beliefs."
Ward said Jackson's posts "looked like direct talking points" from the more virulent elements of Black Hebrew Israelite rhetoric.
Did Jackson truly intend to propagate centuries-old aspersions against Jews? In the first of two apologies posted to Instagram, Jackson indicated that he did not.
"I post a lot of things that are sent to me," Jackson wrote. "I do not have hatred towards anyone. I really didn't realize what this passage was saying."
What led him to post the quote in the first place? In a second apology, Jackson added that his intention was to "uplift, unite and encourage our culture with positivity and light."
It's easy to infer Jackson's explanation: He received and reposted content without understanding or absorbing the full implications. Ward, an expert on the intersection of race and anti-Semitism, said he wasn't willing to absolve Jackson completely. But he did acknowledge that celebrities of all types can be manipulated "in all sorts of ways that are unprincipled" and said sports have failed athletes by not educating them about the complexities of race, social justice and anti-Semitism.
Indeed, Jackson stumbled into a far more dangerous space than just one offensive remark.
"These are ideological statements," Ward said. "Whether he believes them or not, he is putting out an ideological worldview about a group of people. Whether it was intentional or unintentional should certainly be taken into account, but we also have to take into account that the outcome of the action is still the same. And it comes six months after the [Jersey City shooting] by individuals that at least proclaim themselves to be Black Hebrew Israelites."
Julian Edelman issues powerful response to DeSean Jackson's anti-Semitic posts
Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, offers to take DeSean Jackson to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. to help him better understand Jewish culture.
Jackson has promised that his apologies will be "more than just words." He pledged to educate himself, get more informed and "make a difference in our community."
By the end of the week, he had started the process. New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman, who is Jewish, offered to take him on a visit to the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington. The two spoke by phone Thursday night. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Jackson on Friday met with a Jewish group as well as a Holocaust survivor. The Eagles, meanwhile, fined him for conduct detrimental to the team and insisted that he take "strong, deliberate actions" and make "a commitment to grow."
To be sure, Jackson has at times provided a powerful voice for social justice. Last month, his thoughts on the death of George Floyd moved Eagles center Jason Kelce to post his own thoughts on systemic racism.
But as athletes drive further into public advocacy, Jackson has shown that the path forward isn't as obvious as it might have seemed. His attempt this week hurt many people and introduced a hate group to at least a portion of his sizable following. He now has an enormous opportunity not only to reverse the damage but also to do something meaningful -- once he knows what he's talking about.