Rage vs. Conciliation: A Deeper Look at Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins’s Dust-up
Eric Reid and Malcolm Jenkins do not like each other. Each of them wants us to know he is not like the other. Their personal disagreement became national news when, on Sunday, the men clashed before their teams — the Carolina Panthers and the Philadelphia Eagles — played each other. Prior to the coin toss, Reid and Jenkins exchanged sharp words and had to be separated physically. In a post-game interview, Reid confirmed (and reiterated) that he had called Jenkins a sell-out, and claimed Jenkins had co-opted the protest movement against racialized police violence Colin Kaepernick began by kneeling during the national anthem. Reid, who was the first player to kneel alongside Kaepernick, went on to call Jenkins a “neo-colonialist” and “cowardly.”
Following Reid’s news-making post-game interview, Kaepernick showed his support for Reid in a tweet saying, in part, “Eric Reid!!! Enough said!!!”
The bad blood between Reid and Jenkins stems from their vehement disagreement over the manner in which the Players Coalition (a group of NFL players led by Jenkins and Anquan Boldin, who is now retired) negotiated a social justice partnership with the NFL, which Reid believes sold out the protest movement Kaepernick started. Specifically, the NFL pledged to “contribute nearly $100 million to causes considered important to African-American communities.” As reported by Jeremy Stahl in Slate, a source with personal knowledge of the communications between Reid and other members of the Players Coalition claimed Reid was asked if he would be willing to end the protests if the NFL made financial donations. The quid pro quo between the Players Coalition and the NFL was later denied, but if Reid did indeed receive such a message, it’s understandable why he’s taken such a strong stance on the matter.
In addition, according to Pennlive.com, this is how Jenkins described the negotiations with the NFL in his own words: “For me personally, this whole protest has been to draw awareness. So, if the league is proposing something I feel like can replace that or amplify that voice then I see no need in me continuing to protest, but those conversations are still being had.” I honestly don’t see how to interpret this statement as anything other than a validation of Reid’s assessment of the circumstances.
On its face, $100 million seems like plenty of money, and some might argue that all the charitable works the NFL’s donations could fund are a good enough reason to have taken the cash and ended the player protests. However, a closer analysis reveals that the partnership Jenkins negotiated with the league is a bad deal. As reported by Dave Zirin in The Nation, the NFL has promised to donate $89 million dollars (not the $100 million the amount was rounded up to in the announcement). The donations will be spread out over several years, and each owner will have to ante up approximately $250,000 per year, or about half the minimum salary of a drafted player.
In addition, the players have essentially no say in how the money donated by the NFL will be spent. Twenty-five percent has been earmarked for the United Negro College Fund, a worthwhile organization, but one whose mandate has nothing to do with criminal justice reform or anti-police brutality organizing. Another 25 percent will go to CNN contributor Van Jones’s organization, Dream Corps, which has an initiative focused on ending mass incarceration. It is unclear whether or not the money will be spent on combating mass incarceration or the organization’s other programs. Fifty percent of the funds promised by the NFL will go to the Players Coalition. This is where things go even more sideways. The Players Coalition won’t control those funds. As reported by Diana Moskovitz in Deadspin, the funds earmarked for the Players Coalition will be managed by the Hopewell Foundation, an opaque charity whose vague mission statement and public communications make it nearly impossible to tell what the organization actually does.
The kindest interpretation of this outcome is that Jenkins got played by the owners. A less charitable reading of the situation is that he got exactly what he wanted: to get the Players Coalition funded, which is one of the accusations Reid leveled against him in his post-game interview.
At the time Jenkins was negotiating with the NFL, Kaepernick was still unsigned (as he remains), and it had become clear that he was being blackballed for having started the player protest movement. Reid and others felt that unless Kaepernick was involved in the meetings, they would be a farce. As reported by Jim Trotter and Jason Reid in The Undefeated, Reid and Jenkins butted heads over the matter. The main point of contention was who should have been leading the players in their discussions with the NFL. Reid argued that since he and Kaepernick had started the protests, they should have taken the lead. Jenkins believed he should have been at the helm. Josh Norman, a member of the Players Coalition and a Jenkins supporter, described Kaepernick’s involvement as “causing so much chaos” and “toxic.” Eventually, Jenkins removed Kaepernick from the leadership’s group chat, a move Norman supported but that angered Reid immensely. The contents of the chat are of great interest to me, because Jenkins’s attorney advised him to remove Kaepernick from the chat lest he be pulled into Kaepernick’s collusion grievance against the NFL.
There were also issues around transparency that arose in response to complaints that Jenkins was taking solo meetings with NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell. After the group agreed that several members of the Players Coalition would sit in on any future meetings, Reid attempted to arrange a mediated session with himself, Kaepernick, and Goodell without informing the Players Coalition. Matters deteriorated so much that in a group chat, Norman challenged Reid to fight and offered to pay for his plane ticket to make it happen. Reid and others soon exited the Players Coalition, deciding to forge their own path.
Reid’s assessment of Jenkins is quite harsh, but, given what has been made public about the substance Players Coalition’s deal with the NFL, I don’t know that it’s unfair. Jenkins never took the risk of kneeling during the national anthem. He chose to remain standing and raise his fist. In spite of that, he essentially appointed himself to be the leader with whom the NFL should have negotiated about ending the protest movement Kaepernick started. Interpreting this as Jenkins having found a parade to jump in front of isn’t unreasonable. In addition, quelling the discomfort of the powerful, as Jenkins seems to have done with the owners, isn’t the goal of activism. The NFL is still blackballing Kaepernick and has done nothing meaningful to draw attention to the issues Kaepernick, Reid, and others shone a light on by taking a knee. How pleased the extremely conservative NFL is with the social justice partnership is the biggest tell that the Jenkins-brokered deal is paper-thin.
The historical parallels between the upheaval of this moment and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are clear, and they’ve shaped the way the conflict between Reid and Jenkins is being misinterpreted. Reid and Jenkins have been compared by observers and commentators to Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. Reid’s forthright, scathing critiques have earned him the label of “Malcolm” and Jenkins’s more placating public face, the comparison to Dr. King. This is wildly off the mark, in my opinion, and demonstrates that the image of Dr. King has been sanitized to the point of near erasure. What is being erased is Black Americans’ rage.
Where do we go from here?
This question was the theme of the tenth annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1967 as well as the title of one of Dr. King’s books. Dr. King, then president of the conference, spoke and addressed the question directly, while embracing the underlying Black rage that was driving the Civil Rights Movement. Into the streets of the North was the answer he gave. His goal was to mount a large-scale campaign of civil disobedience that would stop American cities from functioning. The plan was to use tactics like blocking traffic, sit-ins by the unemployed at factory gates, and other forms of industrial action like strikes to disrupt the smooth running of America’s metropolises. In his speech, Dr. King said:
“It is purposeless to tell Negroes they should not be enraged when they should be. Indeed, they will be mentally healthier if they do not suppress rage, but vent it constructively and use its energy peacefully but forcefully to cripple the operations of an oppressive society. Civil disobedience can utilize the militance wasted in riots to seize clothes or groceries many do not even want.”
Dr. King’s goals and plans were radical, they were militant, they were non-violent. This notion that he was conciliatingly looking for “a seat at the table” is false. He understood that the existence of the table was the problem. He spoke out firmly against not only White supremacy but capitalism, both of which worked hand-in-hand to construct and set the table he wanted to overturn.
Malcolm X was also radical and militant, but he was forged in a different tradition from Dr. King and called violence in self-defense “intelligence.” That edge, the existence of that threat is a large part of what made Dr. King and his non-violent approach more palatable, if not exactly welcome, to some White political leaders. Dr. King’s confrontational politics and deeply unpopular demonstrations of civil disobedience weren’t embraced by titans of industry. He was a thorn in the side of the powerful. He was vilified and hated. He was assassinated. As was Malcolm X.
It does everyone a disservice to compare anyone involved in the ongoing political upheaval in the United States to Dr. King or Malcolm X. It’s playing fast and loose with history and using lazy analogies to get out of doing the uncomfortable work of unpacking what is unfolding. Yes, it’s all familiar, so familiar it’s almost eerie. Nevertheless, much has changed. The radical politics that are shifting agendas and changing the balance of power are fascist in nature this time. Only opposing radical politics will stem the tide. None of the characters in this particular chapter of the saga are radicals. Not even Kaepernick, who hasn’t claimed to be.
Where do we go from here?
Reid and Jenkins’s answers to this question have diverged from the beginning. Reid knelt next to his friend and teammate, Kaepernick, and was willing to take on the heavy burden of the ostracism meted out to Kaepernick. Not enough is said about the courage it took for Reid and others to witness the example being made of Kaepernick and still choose to continue his protest. Taking that heat has never been part of Jenkins’s agenda. That’s fine, in my opinion. Not everyone is about that life, and there’s no point in trying to force people who aren’t built for it to wear that mantle. It’s the pretense that’s irksome.
Jenkins wants to be an insider, and perhaps he genuinely believes this is how to make effective change. He comports himself like a beloved dealmaker, who is willing to take grinning photos with the Paul Ryans of the world. I suppose that’s understandable. Nevertheless, in the current political climate, that posture is dangerous, because it walks right into the trap of demands for civility from those being oppressed. Politeness isn’t going to make a dent in this mess. People are going to have to look bad. People are going to have to feel bad. People are going to have to be shamed. People are going to have to do more than write checks. People are going to have to be inconvenienced, whether by blocked traffic or images of kneeling athletes.
Calls for civility are really appeals to authority and demands to maintain the status quo. They are about painting the justified rage Dr. King, Malcolm X, and other civil rights leaders spoke of as vulgar in its existence as well as its expression. The righteous anger that is animating Reid may not play well in some quarters when he shows it, but his willingness to draw firm boundaries and make enemies isn’t a bad thing. He understands that there are some demands you don’t negotiate away, some principles you don’t compromise. He also understands that a seat at the table isn’t enough and that its value is measured by who is sitting across from you and their integrity.
Bad faith abounds in the ranks of NFL ownership, as it does at the highest perches of American government. Engaging with this bad faith in good faith isn’t a winning strategy. Friendly banter, charitable donations, and photo-ops are diversions that provide cover to the evil being done. Only sustained, uncomfortable pressure has any chance of forcing the hands on the levers of power — and they will have to be forced. As Frederick Douglass cautioned, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Eric Reid seems to understand this. I don’t believe Malcolm Jenkins does.