ATLANTA — One by one, representatives for six different nonprofits stepped to the microphone Wednesday at the Super Bowl Media Center, happily explaining the social justice causes they were championing.
Only a few feet away, five current and former NFL players looked on, either nodding their heads intermittently or smiling.
The players’ enthusiasm was understandable. This was a big day for the five-man contingent representing the Players Coalition, which consisted of Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, ex-49ers and Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, Panthers receiver Torrey Smith, Saints linebacker Demario Davis and ex-Ravens and Patriots linebacker Adalius Thomas.
To those five, this news conference — in which the coalition announced it was distributing $2 million worth of grants to six nonprofits that are fighting racial and social inequality — was the culmination of months of hard work.
“Quite frankly, we see the impact,” Jenkins told Yahoo Sports. “We’ve spent a lot of time on the ground organizing ourselves, and this is the first round of grants that we’ve been able to give out. We’re supporting those who are doing great work, and we’re announcing our partnerships with them to get on the ground right alongside them and do the work.”
This is significant because while the coalition has done plenty of advocacy work over the past year and a half — which led to the passage of new bills in four states — all of that was funded by the players, who also invested their time and resources to do so.
The grants the group awarded on Wednesday were for the first time funded in part by the NFL, just a part of the $89 million that team owners pledged to give to social justice causes last summer.
For an organization that drew criticism from some for accepting the money in the first place, this day was tangible proof of the good the Players Coalition felt could be done by agreeing to the deal.
“We’re an independent, player-driven organization, so everything we do is for the long run. We want to end mass incarceration,” Jenkins said. “We want to end the use of cash bail [system]. We want to make a lot of reforms to the way we treat juveniles in our justice system. We want to build a better education system.”
Yet, it’s easy to see Wednesday’s news conference doing little to change the minds of those who remain uneasy about the coalition’s decision to accept the NFL’s money. Some —most notably the Carolina Panthers’ safety Eric Reid — perceived the “heavily incentivized” deal as a bribe, since team owners were eager to halt the players’ powerful (but controversial) protests during the pregame national anthem that brought attention to the causes of social injustice and police brutality in the first place.
All this led to the well-documented splintering of the Players Coalition, as Reid, Colin Kaepernick — the man who started the movement and remains out of the NFL — and others eventually left the group. It also led to some flare-ups over the past several months, as Reid got into a war of words with coalition member Josh Norman over Reid’s accusation that Jenkins was a “neo-colonialist” and “sellout” who co-opted the movement started by his friend Kaepernick.
Jenkins has refused to engage in any of that, an approach he continued Wednesday. Instead, he focused on the latest fruits of the coalition’s efforts, and spoke more about the change the group is hoping to make in America.
“There are no sides in this,” Jenkins said. “The side is, are we moving toward a more equitable country? Are we moving toward the fairness in our justice system? If we are, the rest of that is inconsequential.”
And his cohorts in the Players Coalition followed suit.
“One thing I learned along this journey is that I don’t think there’s a perfect way, and I’ve learned that through [the coalition’s] turmoil,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “Who’s to say what you’re doing in your community — and maybe you’re mentoring one kid — isn’t any better than what I’m doing? Right? That’s your way of trying to help save someone, trying to help fix a situation.
“So what I’ve learned is that you don’t necessarily have to all be on the same [page], but one thing you can’t be doing is attacking everyone.”
Jenkins and others also noted that days like Wednesday makes it easier to stay the course.
“We’re going to continue to do the work — there’s a lot of problems out there that need our attention,” Boldin said. “If you look back at civil rights leaders and what they stood for, what they fought for, some of the things they fought for we’re still dealing with today. So hopefully we can look back 20 years from now and not be dealing with the same issues.”
Last year, the coalition contributed to bills that passed in Florida and Louisiana that helped restore voting rights to convicted felons, and based on the feedback they say they’re hearing from the grassroots level, coalition members are optimistic more victories will come in 2019.
“After being thoroughly vetted throughout our research process, to be able to select a group [of grantees] that tell you how thankful they are and how powerful the work is you’re doing, that’s what makes you feel good,” Davis said.
Take the Advancement Project, for instance, one of the six nonprofits to receive a grant from the Players Coalition on Wednesday. Judith Browne-Dianis, the organization’s executive director, said her group will use the money to support litigation and the training of young people who can fight against the school-to-prison pipeline.
“This is all going to help move the work on the ground,” Browne-Dianis said. “The grant will help pay the bills and make sure we can do the work and support our partners.”
In addition to the Advancement Project, the five other nonprofits receiving grants from the Coalition and the NFL include:
The Center for Policing Equity, which is dedicated to fighting against disparate policing.
Communities in Schools, which encourages at-risk students to stay in school.
The National Juvenile Defender Center, which fights to ensure that every child has a defender specialized in juvenile law.
The Justice Collaborative, whose stated mission is to “bring human dignity and restraint to a deeply-flawed justice system.”
Year Up, which works to provide young adults in underserved neighborhoods with the resources they need to be successful.
While Jenkins and Co. see this as a promising start, they understand that after all the talk about how the coalition came to be — and what it eventually became — their efforts will eventually be judged by what they accomplish over the next several years.
“Over time, you see what fruits a tree bears,” Jenkins said.
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