Malcolm Jenkins had stood and raised his right fist during the national anthem Sunday, just as he has done before every football game he has played for more than a year, only this time he left Lincoln Financial Field, after the Eagles' 33-10 victory over the 49ers, to the news that Colin Kaepernick had called him a liar.
It was the only conclusion one could draw from an article that appeared on Slate.com on Sunday afternoon, and it added a new dimension to a story and a dynamic that have hung over the NFL like an anvil for a year-and-a-half: Kaepernick and his decision last year to kneel during the national anthem to protest the "systematic oppression" of minorities in the United States, the support he received from other players, the revulsion he inspired from fans and the fear he inspired in the league's owners, the political cudgel the issue has become for President Trump and others to wield.
Jenkins, the Eagles safety, has been at the heart of this debate since its outset, the most eloquent voice among those players who want the NFL to join their social-activist efforts. And on Sunday, he found himself in an unfamiliar and undeserved position — a target of Kaepernick himself — and he should have learned just how little the man who started this entire controversy is contributing to the cause.
The news was this: Slate published recent emails from Kaepernick's attorneys to the NFL Players Association and to Jenkins. In those emails, the attorneys accuse Jenkins and the group he leads, the Players Coalition, of freezing Kaepernick out of conversations between players and owners. After Jenkins and the Players Coalition met with several owners in New York on Oct. 17, to try to reach an agreement or understanding regarding the players' protests and their effect on the league, Jenkins told reporters that Kaepernick had declined a request to attend the meeting.
In an Oct. 26 email to Jenkins, Ben Meiselas, one of Kaepernick's lawyers, wrote to request that "you correct false statements you made that Mr. Kaepernick was invited to the last players meeting." Jenkins and the coalition also had proposed to meet with owners Monday in Philadelphia and invited Kaepernick to attend, but Meiselas complained that Kaepernick was unaware of the potential meeting until ESPN reported it. (The meeting, Jenkins confirmed, was postponed.)
Put simply, Jenkins has been saying that he and his coalition have offered to have Kaepernick involved in the process, and Kaepernick, through his attorneys, is saying he has been excluded. After Sunday's game, Jenkins declined to comment on the Slate story and the emails it contained, but he did say: "Anything we've talked about, any quotes, we've always said that we want [Kaepernick] to be a part of the conversation, and that's been since the beginning."
At this point, that's more than Kaepernick deserves. This is a complex story, and it's important to separate two key aspects of it: the validity of the protests, and Kaepernick's relative public silence about them. One doesn't have to agree with the players' reasons for protesting or their methods to recognize that Jenkins has carried himself honorably. He believes in what he's doing. He backs it up with action; just last week, he went to Harrisburg with teammates Torrey Smith and Chris Long to lobby lawmakers on criminal-justice reform. There is nothing in his track record that hints that he would "make false statements" about Kaepernick or anything else related to this campaign. He has been an honest and open broker, willing to listen to those who might disagree with him. You don't have to like what he says, but you damn sure have to respect it.
"Our biggest thing is, any player who's protesting will tell you that the only reason we use the anthem is because it's a platform like no other," Jenkins said. "We use it to draw attention to other issues. We've heard from many people, 'Use a different venue. Use a different platform.' Quite frankly, this is the most effective one. Here we are, a year later, and it's still top of every outlet. We don't really enjoy doing this. We'd love to have a different platform."
More — and here is the great distinction between him and Kaepernick — Jenkins can take the heat. After every game, during every designated midweek availability at the NovaCare Complex, he is at his locker, opening himself to skepticism and criticism from anyone with a camera or notepad who wishes football players would just stick to football.
Last November, Kaepernick made himself available to on-the-record questions during a conference call with Miami reporters ahead of a 49ers-Dolphins game. He came off as a cross between Oliver Stone and a naïve college student, defending Fidel Castro's Communist regime in Cuba, defending his decision to wear a Castro T-shirt and socks depicting police officers as pigs. Since then, he has limited his comments mostly to anonymous press leaks and social-media posts, and remember: He couldn't even be bothered to vote last year.
His attack at Jenkins comes off as petulance from a wannabe revolutionary who wants to feign commitment, who wants to pretend he's fighting the good fight but either is too scared to speak up or isn't equipped to do it. Either way, he's leaving the heavy lifting to Jenkins and others.
"I can't speak for him," Jenkins said. "I can tell you what I've been doing, what I've been trying to get accomplished. I've been doing work. I wouldn't want to speak on his behalf. I think obviously there's been a lot that's happened over the last year-and-a-half. There are lot of questions and, frankly, a lot of speculation, and a lot of that is pushed off on other players to try to answer. But I don't think it's our place to answer it, and I don't think it's fair to us to have to answer it."