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What the NFL players are asking for in their memo

Jenkins, Smith, Bennett and Boldin have called for change under the umbrella of criminal justice reform

Before the president of the United States called any athlete who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a b—-” and set the sports world ablaze with player demonstrations, condemning statements from team owners, and one memorable tweet from LeBron James, albeit on a different topic, four NFL players sent a 2,740-word document to the league and commissioner Roger Goodell requesting support for player activism.

In the 10-page memo, Malcolm Jenkins and Torrey Smith of the Philadelphia Eagles, Michael Bennett of the Seattle Seahawks and recently retired player Anquan Boldin asked the NFL to lend its influence, financial resources and support for community issues ranging from mass incarceration to the criminalization of poverty. The group’s overall objective, according to the document, is to move beyond the “national anthem protests” and devote its attention to tangible philanthropy and change within the country.

Two of the players, Smith and Bennett, have been advocating for change long before former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” last season. Smith, 28, is a seventh-year receiver who helped lead the Baltimore Ravens to victory at Super Bowl XLVII in 2013. Bennett, 31, is a two-time Pro Bowler who joined the league in 2009 and has appeared in two Super Bowls, winning one in 2014.

Lost in all the demonstrations of “unity” against an undefined threat of “divisiveness” during Week 3 of the season was the lengthy plea by those four players for the owners and executives of this billion-dollar corporation to put their money where their mouths are. While taking a knee and raising a fist and linking arms have been the talk of the country the past week, what Smith, Bennett and others have specifically called for is tangible change in America, specifically under the umbrella of criminal justice reform: police community relations, mass incarceration, and political and community engagement.

Before the players sent the document to the league in August, The Undefeated spoke with Bennett and Smith in June and July, respectively, about their activism and philanthropy.

Police-community relations

A 2016 Pew Research Center poll found that nearly half (44 percent) of blacks had little or no confidence in the police department in their community, a stark contrast to white people (18 percent). This, no doubt, is attributed to the proven presence of overpolicing in predominantly black communities, racial profiling of black men and women by officers and the lack of accountability of police departments when it comes to the fatal shootings of unarmed suspects; a 2016 HuffPost study found that zero officers were convicted of murder or manslaughter charges for killing civilians in 2015 or 2014. Department of Justice reports on the Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore police departments found that officers routinely violated the civil rights of African-Americans with little to no consequences. “Obviously I haven’t always had money. I was a broke college student just like everyone else. … I’ve been pulled over multiple times for no reason. I’ve had dogs search my cars,” Smith said in July. “I’ve had guns drawn on me three different times by cops. That’s just real life for me, and ask me what I’ve done, a single crime that I’ve been caught for, or I’ve even participated in. You can’t find one.”

In late August, Bennett said, he was racially profiled and assaulted by Las Vegas police officers during the weekend of the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight. An officer, with his gun allegedly pointed at Bennett, said he’d “blow [his] f—ing head off” if the defensive lineman moved. “We might be on the spotlight, but the core of everything, I’m just Philando Castile. I’m Kaepernick. I’m Alton Sterling. I’m Trayvon Martin. I’m Michael Brown. I’m all those people,” Bennett said in June. “At any moment, I can be one of those people if I’m not in Seattle. If I’m not in Houston. If I’m in the wrong part of the world, I can be a T-shirt, or a hashtag. It’s as simple as that.”

Mass incarceration

The explosion of the prison population from about 250,000 in the 1950s to more than 2.3 million today has been thrust into national conversation mostly because of author Michelle Alexander’s pivotal 2012 book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. In the book, Alexander, a civil rights attorney and law professor, argues that America’s war on drugs is a strategic government policy to maintain a “caste system” that’s been in place since the centuries of chattel slavery. Alexander’s research pulls from a long history of the criminal justice system specifically targeting African-Americans as pushback from the civil rights movement of the 1960s. There are large disparities in arrests and sentencing when it comes to race, with blacks more likely to be arrested for selling drugs and sentenced more harshly than whites even though the latter are more likely to deal drugs and they use drugs at about the same rate as blacks. “I saw too many people from where I’m from being thrown under the jail for crimes they committed, when someone commits the same crime, and they may have a little bit more money, and stability, and their penalty is completely different,” Smith said.

Crack cocaine, assumed to be the cheaper drug of choice for blacks, carries a heavier prison sentence than its more expensive counterpart, powder cocaine, which is used more by whites. Three-strike laws disproportionately affect African-Americans and are so stringent that a black man in California was sentenced to 25 years to life for stealing a $2 pair of socks. For years, blacks have been sent to prison for using and selling marijuana, while seven states and Washington, D.C., have legalized the recreational use of the drug. President Donald Trump has declared the opioid crisis, which affects mostly white people, a national emergency in need of treatment, not incarceration.

Smith’s mother, Monica Jenkins, pleaded guilty to felony unlawful wounding in 1996 for shooting her ex-husband after a domestic violence incident, thus making her a convicted felon. That label followed Jenkins and the family for years until she was pardoned in 2006 by then-Virginia Gov. Mark Warner. “It didn’t matter that she was educated. It didn’t matter that she stayed out of trouble for 10 years. She was a felon, so she couldn’t get hired at a job that was going to be able to provide for us,” Smith said. “So she’s working labor jobs. She’s working, doing whatever she had to do. Once her rights were pardoned, it changed our life. My mom was able to afford to buy a house. My mom was able to provide for us. We didn’t have to worry about where we were going to live, where we were going to stay, what we were going to eat. She was able to provide for us, and there was nothing that changed except for all of the sudden someone can look past her record.”

Political engagement/action

As Bleacher Report eloquently stated this week, the era of “stick to sports” is over for professional athletes. For decades, men and women of the NBA, WNBA, NFL, MLB and NCAA have been told they are avatars for fan enjoyment and not human beings with every right to this country as anyone else. Whether it be politics, race, gender or education, athletes are expected to ignore real-world problems and devote their time and energy to the next game or match. J.J. Watt raising $37 million for Hurricane Harvey relief is admirable. Kaepernick wanting certain Americans to be treated like human beings is admonished.

The players’ memo noted that they expect the league to commit to involvement at the state and national levels, attending meetings on Capitol Hill and meeting with senators and representatives to “discuss specific legislation.”

Bennett has been one of the most politically active players in the league over the past few years. He’s pledged to donate all of his endorsement money this season to educational and community programs, endorsed Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential primaries (“I just like a lot of the things that he talks about, social injustice, the things about climate control,’’ he told The Seattle Times in December 2015) and publicly withdrew from a planned trip to Israel in February because the Israeli government wanted to use the goodwill trip as a form of political propaganda. “I will not be used in such a manner,” he said at the time.

In June, Smith and Jenkins traveled to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital, to lobby for criminal justice reform. Four years earlier, Smith interned with Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings after the Ravens’ Super Bowl win over Kaepernick’s 49ers. It was an opportunity to expand his horizons beyond just football. “Now that all we do is work out and you have the rest of the day, I feel like I’m limiting myself if I don’t do anything else,” he told the Ravens team website. He also endorsed candidate “Deez Nuts” over Trump in 2015.

Engage with community families

The key to improving and rebuilding communities, according to the memo, is going to the most “poverty-stricken and crime-laden” neighborhoods and actually speaking with the families affected by the criminal justice system. It’s meeting with and providing resources for grass-roots organizations, such as The Sentencing Project and Black Lives Matter, that are working on legislation aimed at providing resources for those incarcerated and on parole. Formerly incarcerated people face insurmountable hiring odds because of the “box” on job applications, have trouble with re-entry into society and risk forever losing their 15th Amendment right to vote.

“You have people from certain neighborhoods who are in trouble, they’re convicted felons. It’s like, how can you expect them to change their situation?” Smith said. “Yes, they messed up, yes, they should be punished for it, but what about when they stay clean for a while? What’s next? You put people in the corner, honestly, and expect them to not go back to what they were doing before.”

Along with his wife, Chanel, and business manager, Smith runs the Torrey Smith Family Fund, which does charitable and community work across the Washington, D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area. “I’ve always thought it was important to give back, because if it wasn’t for other folks lending a helping hand to my family, then I wouldn’t be where I am right now. So it is important, and is not necessarily just about dollars. It’s about time,” Smith said.

Along with his investment in educational programs, Bennett pledged to donate 50 percent of the proceeds of his jersey sales this season to inner-city garden projects and has worked closely with Black Lives Matter founder Patrisse Cullors on police accountability and black business empowerment in the Seattle area. Like Smith, the Seattle defender runs The Bennett Foundation.

“Just because I’m up here scoring touchdowns, just because I’m getting sacks, you see me in the commercial, it doesn’t make me any more different than the next black man, or the next African-American woman, or the next Latino person, or the person they’re trying to build a wall so they keep them out. Or the woman who’s working in a building, and she’s getting treated wrong because she’s a woman,” Bennett said.

Moving on

More than a year after Kaepernick’s initial protest, Smith, Bennett, Jenkins and Boldin are trying to move forward from the national anthem and American flag … and Trump. The demonstrations that started the conversation were just that: starters. With help from the NFL, which is expected to generate $14 billion in revenue this season, the players want to heavily invest in the most underserved communities across the country using the power of their platforms as professional athletes. “We have to be able to show people we’re serious about changing our communities. We’re serious about these challenges,” Bennett said. “As we get to this new generation where athletes are able to have this platform, we have to continuously stress the issues. We don’t want to look back and be the athletes that didn’t take our time to change the world. We were more about dollars. That’s not going to change the world at all. I think, you think about Hakeem, you think about Muhammad, you think about Jim Brown, you think about John Carlos, you think about Jackie Robinson, you think about … I can keep going on and on. Bill Russell. Craig Hodges.”

Smith added: “Enough about [Kaepernick’s] protest, but why he’s protesting. Focus on that. Let’s talk about that. He already said he’s not to take a knee anymore anyways. That’s done. So what’s next?”

Liner Notes

Senior Digital Producer Lois Nam contributed to this story

Martenzie is a senior researcher for The Undefeated. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said "Y'all want to see somethin?"