NFL player Malcolm Jenkins has received recognition for speaking out against racial injustice, but he undermined fellow players’ efforts to confront it, says Marianne Garneau. This article was first published by Organizing Work.
Last week, Malcolm Jenkins got plaudits for smacking down fellow NFL player Drew Brees, after Brees issued some tone-deaf soundbite in the midst of the protests about “respecting the flag.”
Jenkins first told Brees to “shut the fuck up” in an Instagram video, then deleted that and replaced it with a long, sincere video about how Brees’s comments were “hurtful” and “insensitive” and showed “you don’t know history.” The left hailed him as a hero.
This is a mistake. Jenkins is the worst kind of snake in the grass, a genuine employee-side union-buster, someone you discover in many an organizing campaign and need to know how to deal with.
The kneeling controversy and the Players Coalition
Back when NFL players were taking a knee, they formed something called the “Players Coalition” to basically negotiate with the NFL, which was losing its mind and acting the same way any employer acts when you do something they don’t like. Jenkins spearheaded the coalition, along with Anquan Boldin, and invited other players to join. A few dozen did – and others (maybe perspicaciously) didn’t. The Coalition started talking to the League.
Pretty soon, the two parties reached a deal whereby the League would give some impressive-sounding amount to racial justice charities, allowing the players to look like they had scored a win. It was clear – but not said out loud by the League — that their expectation was that in return, the protesting would stop. In fact, Eric Reid, one of the first players to kneel alongside Colin Kaepernick, says Jenkins texted him the morning of the deal, asking whether he “would be comfortable ending our demonstrations if the NFL made a donation.”
It was a great divide-and-conquer strategy to subvert the protests. It looked like a decent offer was on the table — $89 million for organizations that empower black people – from a league of racist billionaire owners. But many players were not impressed. It left completely unresolved the issue of player self-expression, not least the punishment of Kaepernick, who was never signed by another team after being released from the San Francisco 49ers in March 2017.
Kaepernick and Reid, among others, repudiated the offer because they recognized it as a bullshit deal that would disorganize players rather than advance their power. Would that the left and labor world were as savvy. There is way too much acceptance of token gestures like “a seat on the board” and superficial offers (after all, what’s $89 million to the NFL?).
The other problem was that Jenkins and Boldin were speaking on behalf of the entire Coalition, and implicitly the whole movement of players protesting police brutality and racism. One lesson here is that if you set up a “coalition” or any kind of collective organization, it isn’t really collective unless decision-making is. Proposals and counteroffers from the boss or the opponent should be put to a vote, not handled by self-selecting members, no matter how “connected” or “reasonable” or foundational they are.
This is actually a play we see run over and over: you start an organization, brand yourself as the movement, cut your own deal, and squeeze out the other players. The Players Coalition is yet another object lesson in the insidiousness of the nonprofit model.
In fact, it’s worse than you even think, because the black empowerment organization set to receive half of the league’s payout was… the Coalition itself. So Jenkins gets $40+ million, to run through his part-charity, part-advocacy group.
This has been his approach all the while. As Dave Zirin wrote in 2017,
Jenkins has been attempting to address criminal-justice reform by meeting with law enforcement, doing ride-alongs with police, endorsing small-bore legislation in Congress, and taking chummy photos in DC with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
You only have to look at the last several years to know that these approaches don’t work. This last week of protests and riots saw a huge list of wins where there had been very little movement on these issues after years of lobbying and trying to work within the system.
The thing is, the left continually gets taken in by people like Jenkins and entities like the Players Coalition. As long as something is superficially, aesthetically “radical,” people forget to look beyond that to what a person or organization or approach is actually doing – whether it is shifting the balance of power, or just making itself look good, and lining its own pockets in the process.
And here’s the thing. The NFL never really cared that players were bringing attention to police violence. It’s fun to think of the owners as cigar-chomping white supremacists who refuse to rename their teams away from racial slurs, and while that’s mostly accurate, it’s also an obfuscation of what’s really taking place. The kneeling controversy was a power struggle over work. Owners will kneel with players, they’ll throw money at black charities, but they will not budge on the issue of power. They want complete control over what players do on the field, and over the “product.”
And if you don’t believe me, here is Jenkins solemnly pulling some non-profit-style “earned media” stunt bringing attention to the racist criminal justice system in 2018, right there from the locker room, right on the heels of his cool $40 million deal that sold out his fellow players.
Talk is cheap. This week we’ve seen cops kneeling, and a slew of corporate businesses declaring their “solidarity” with the protestors. It’s all branding, and it costs nothing. What cost Kaepernick his job was not his radical stance, but the fact that he refused to cede control of his own actions at work.
Stop falling for the fake radical. In the IWW, we say that people like Jenkins have “bosshead” – the kind of guy who steps in between workers and management: “I’ve got this, guys.” Democratizing decision-making prevents the struggle from being led around by opportunists. The corollary bosshead organization is the nonprofit. These groups always try to replace collective action with “discourse,” and consider it a win when the boss or opponent emptily mouths their line. That’s because what really drives them is the endless search for funding contributions, which they are happy to take from bosses themselves. Use disruptive action, and keep your eye on the real prize, which is power and control over work and institutions.