The Fight Continues

With a new football season upon us — and the continuous arguments over who is protesting and who isn’t circulating among owners, fans, the media and politicians — the governing board of the Players Coalition feels the need to refocus attention back on the systemic issues that plague the lives of millions of Americans, and remind you why we are in this fight.

On October 18, 2015, Corey Jones, a bright 31-year-old musician, was heading home from his band’s gig at a Palm Beach nightclub when his SUV broke down. He pulled over to the side of an exit ramp and called roadside assistance, but before help could arrive, a plainclothes police officer, Nouman Raja, drove up in an unmarked surveillance van and blocked his car. Raja never identified himself as police, according to FBI investigators, but he did pull his gun and aim it at Corey as he walked toward him. Raja subsequently shot Corey three times, killing him with a shot to the chest. The roadside-assistance recording reveals that, just before Raja opened fire, Corey said, “Hold on, hold on, man!” Raja has been charged with manslaughter and attempted murder, and is currently awaiting trial.

Corey Jones was a cousin of 14-year NFL veteran Anquan Boldin. His name is now woven into a solemn tapestry that none of its subjects will ever get to see, an elegy to black and brown lives lost to police violence. And Boldin and his family are members of a group of people who would otherwise be strangers, brought together by their grief as well as their search to turn tragedy into hope and a better future for others.

Damon Higgins-Pool/Getty Images

Anquan Boldin became an advocate for criminal justice reform in 2016 for acutely personal reasons. A year ago, he and fellow NFL veteran Malcolm Jenkins founded the Players Coalition because of the potent pain of watching police violence, and of witnessing deeply segregated communities — both racially and economically — where children were afraid to ride their bikes or play outside for fear of violence or incarceration.

Other members of the Coalition have gotten involved for reasons that were no less personal. Devin McCourty and other Patriots players were shocked to learn that the median net worth of African-American households in Boston is $8, while the median net worth of white households is nearly $250,000, and that the state of Massachusetts has prosecuted kids as young as seven years old. The Eagles’ Rodney McLeod is especially concerned for minority children who grow up in low-income communities and therefore attend low-income schools that lack proper counseling and resources. Without proper schooling, those children lack opportunities for the future.

The Coalition’s actions are motivated by a deep patriotism, a desire to ensure that the realities of this country match its stated ideals, and that we live up to America’s foundational promise of opportunity and equality for all. For the Saints’ Benjamin Watson, his Christian faith has inspired him to serve God in seeking justice, and to foster honest understanding and subsequent action. At present, the promise of equality under the law doesn’t exist. Our criminal justice system oppresses and marginalizes black and brown people.

In our country,  nearly 60% of those in prison are African-American or Hispanic. On any given day as many as 5,000 children are jailed with adults—again, mostly children of color. According to The Sentencing Project, an organization that advocates for reform in the criminal justice system, one in every 12 black males in his 30s is behind bars on any given day, and one in 13 African-Americans over the voting age has lost their right to vote because of felon disenfranchisement laws. In poor communities, largely communities of color, kids see police officers in their schools instead of the text books, computers or other resources they need to succeed.

This is not equality. As the 2018 NFL season starts, we promise you that we will work to fight for meaningful change for as long as it takes. This is what we feel is our duty as American citizens.

Some of us have protested to draw awareness to these issues, to galvanize others to push for progress. Colin Kaepernick started a movement through protest, taking a knee to put a laser focus on the men and women who have died because of police brutality. His efforts have inspired us to work on behalf of our lost brothers’ memory to try to stop the carnage. He did this at great personal cost to himself. Surely it’s an act of patriotism to forfeit your job to fight for others.

Other players have worked to raise awareness of these issues in different ways, although the media still remains hyper-focused on talking about “the anthem.” We have made trips to Capitol Hill, gone on ride-alongs with police officers and held meetings with grassroots organizations, community advocates, public defenders and progressive prosecutors. We have watched bail hearings during which people have been locked up not because they posed a public-safety threat, but because they were too poor to pay their cash bail. And as we learned, we also worked. We lobbied for criminal justice reform in New York, Pennsylvania and Boston, pushed for the restoration of voting rights in Florida and Louisiana, and for prosecutor accountability across the country. We hosted D.A.–candidate forums in multiple states, including California and Missouri. This is just a sampling of what we have done.

Josh Reynolds/AP Photo

Our work will continue this season. We hope the media stops asking the same old questions about, “Will they or won’t they protest?” Instead, we want them to focus on our efforts to create a better country for every citizen, and on the reasons why we have not yet met that goal. And we hope that the press, our fans and our skeptics recognize that our desire to draw attention to these pressing issues, either through protest or our off-the-field work, is our own vow of loyalty.

Finally, we want to say one thing as this season starts — something we have said before but which bears repeating. In fighting for the rights of our most vulnerable citizens, we are not fighting against others who sacrifice so much for this country. We respect our police, who do much of their work on behalf of our most needy. Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin’s father served as a police  officer for 35 years. We are grateful for our military. Malcolm Jenkins has 17 family members who have served this nation. Fighting on behalf of those who have no voice does not mean that we disrespect anybody. We envision a better world for all.

The family of Corey Jones, like so many other families, is counting on us. We will not let them down, and we hope you will join us as we continue to fight for justice this season.

Players Coalition is an independent 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization governed by 12 NFL players including:

Doug Baldwin, Seattle Seahawks
Kelvin Beachum, New York Jets
Anquan Boldin, former NFL player
Demario Davis, New Orleans Saints
Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles
Chris Long, Philadelphia Eagles
Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
Josh McCown, New York Jets
Josh Norman, Washington Redskins
Rodney McLeod, Philadelphia Eagles
Torrey Smith, Carolina Panthers
Benjamin Watson, New Orleans Saints