From left to right: The 49ers’ Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

CHAPTER
IV

K

ris Jenkins is at his home in Washington, D.C., six years after the last of three torn ACLs ended his NFL career. A menacing nose tackle who weighed as much as 400 pounds, he played 10 seasons for the Panthers and the Jets, doling out and enduring punishment in equal measure—he sustained at least 10 concussions in the pros and college and made the Pro Bowl in most seasons when he was remotely healthy. Since retiring, Jenkins sometimes feels numbness on the left side of his body. Occasionally his brain is foggy. But he has few, if any, beefs with football. He loves the game. Always will.

“I have pains,” says Jenkins, 37, “but my body is feeling good considering I was man enough to understand what I committed to. I’m doing well. I don’t think my injuries had anything to do with football.” He corrects himself. “Let me take that back. They did—they had everything to do with what I knew I was getting myself into.”

Jenkins takes a breath and continues preaching. “Everybody is acting like football is in chaos. A lot of the queasiness is coming from outside. We know when we play that we may have—how should I say it?—an ‘expedited’ exit.”

He says this from within an afternoon’s drive of the nation’s capital, in the leadup to the presidential election. Football, he says, especially at the NFL level, has become increasingly politicized. “We’re starting to see American politics playing out in football. We’re having a moment as a country. We’re trying to maintain our identity as Americans, but there are all these external forces that are making us redefine what that means. That’s why outsiders—external forces—want football to change. We—players—want the integrity to be preserved.

“And if the integrity of the game is going to be preserved, people are going to have to change their minds about what football is. We can’t get all political about it.”

Donald Trump
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

G

ood luck trying to stop that. This is Donald Trump, mid-October, after a woman fainted at a campaign rally in Lakeland, Fla.: “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions—Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season—our people are tough.”

The same mingling of football and politics is playing out 45 minutes northeast of Jenkins, in a long trail of downtown Baltimore tailgates canopied by the humming strip of I-395 overhead. Ravens fans—nearly all of them white and between the ages of 20 and 40—are strolling, laughing, yelling, texting, texting, texting. . . .

And sipping. Hundreds of elbows are bent at 90 degrees, cans, bottles and red cups in hand. A Pitbull song shouts over the din. Half of these people appear drunk; maybe a fourth of the grand total look hammered. Football in America is, among other things, a place to get intoxicated on Sunday morning without fear of judgment.

Amidst this, in the sunlit parking lot at the foot of M&T Bank Stadium, four African-American fans in their early 30s hang out. Sabrina and Crystal Morris are sisters; Sabrina has either had a lot to drink or has a low tolerance. The women are clad in Ravens black, with stylish purple accents. Sabrina’s fiancé, Brian, is in a plain white T-shirt. Anthony Gibson, cousin to the sisters, wears a Doug Williams No. 17 Redskins jersey.

“We don’t like this motherf----- right here,” Crystal says, smiling and pointing at Anthony.”

“She was my favorite cousin,” he shoots back. “Now she done dropped to the bottom of the list. This is when you lose your coworkers as friends, a game like this.”

From left: Sabrina, Anthony, Brian and Crystal
(Michael McKnight, shot with an iPhone 7)

The Ravens and Redskins, the two teams nearest the nation’s capital, play every four years, around each presidential election. So what has changed in America since 2012, since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney duked it out?

“Not much,” says Crystal. “A lot of s--- has been brought to light, but not much has changed.”

“Gay marriage,” Anthony says, keeping count with his fingers.

“That’s a good thing,” Crystal weighs in.

“You can smoke weed legally.” Two fingers.

“We got a black president reelected.” Three fingers.

Someone mentions the debate going down later this night, Trump vs. Hillary Clinton.

“They’re just the face of the country,” says Crystal. “They’re not the country.”

“Most black people are gonna be Democrats,” Brian says, his thumbs tucked into the ropes of his backpack. “That’s just how it is. [If you’re black and] you’re a sports figure or are making a lot of money, you’re a Republican.”

“I know a few black people who are Republicans,” Anthony says.

“Hillary has got my vote,” Sabrina slurs, “but only because she feels like the lesser of two evils.”

“Donald Trump is a f------ idiot,” Crystal says, more morose than mad.

Football in America is, among other things, a place to get intoxicated on Sunday morning without fear of judgment.

Would it have even been possible for Trump to become the nominee in 2012, the last time these teams played?

“No,” all four voices say.

Inside the stadium a well-to-do investment banker concedes that he, too, has “been drinking a little.” The biggest thing that’s changed in America over the last four years, he proclaims, is “players not standing for the National Anthem. We’re better off in the United States [compared to other nations]. We should be proud as a country, and players should—.” He stops here, fearing he’s said too much, knowing he’s consumed too much. “I don’t give my permission for you to air this,” he says, turning away.

At the end of the first quarter, Washington cornerback Josh Norman lies facedown after making a tackle, his toe kicking the turf in agony. Baltimore receiver Steve Smith has already left the game after Norman inadvertently rolled Smith’s ankle during a tackle. Norman rises and continues, defying the replay that shows his right wrist being crushed.

In the third quarter, Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who has already been diagnosed with five concussions in his three-year career, takes a brutal hit to the back of his helmet. He opens his eyes wide and shakes his head rapidly. (He’ll finish the game, but he’ll miss the next two with lingering symptoms from a concussion.) Washington’s right tackle, Morgan Moses, has dropped to one knee on the same play, also suffering from a blow to the head. As the 315-pounder shuffles off the field, the Redskins’ VP of Media Relations, Tony Wyllie, receives a text message in the press box from Moses’s parents. They’re looking for details. “I get a lot of these,” Wyllie says. “Just feeling dizzy,” he texts back, relaying word from the medical team. (Moses finishes the game and then starts the next week against the Eagles.)

Ravens fans
(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Meanwhile, in the main concourse, 50-year-old Ravens fan Randy Gambrill and his girlfriend, Redskins supporter Angie Heffner, bump into Heffner’s cousin Nicole Fridinger and her husband, Nathan—another mixed-fan couple wearing Ravens purple and Redskins maroon, respectively.

“It doesn’t matter where you are,” Angie says, explaining what football means in the Beltway, “it brings the community together. Brings families together. I didn’t know my cousin was going to be here today. . .” She waves her hand. “But look!”

“This is a rivalry for the fans, not the teams,” Randy says, outlining the scheduling cycle that pits these two teams against one another every election year.

What has changed in America over the last four years?

“Most people don’t like police officers,” says Randy.

“We have ISIS to deal with now,” says Angie.

What has changed about football?

“We’re not even getting into [Kaepernick],” says Angie, who is tipsy, but not loaded. But then she gets into it. “You need to respect your country and respect your team. [Football] is not a place to present politics or anything like that.”

WHAT IS FOOTBALL
TO YOU?

FOOTBALL IS...
A LOT OF THINGS TO A LOT OF PEOPLE


“I believe racing is the sport of America because it was made a long time beforehand. Football players are overpaid. All they do is run up and down a field and chase a ball. As far as Collin Kaepernick goes: I go to a racetrack every Saturday night where everybody stands and removes their hats, puts their hands over their hearts [during the national anthem]. He doesn’t even have the respect to stand for the flag they fought for so he can have his opinion? He needs to have a what-for with somebody.”


—Brandon (Cooter) McClure
TRUCK DRIVER
GEORGIA

What would happen at your workplace if, say, everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and one person took a knee?

“I would take a hard stand if anyone did that,” Randy says. “I love what Jerry Jones said: You’re paid performers and this is my stage and you will stand up and put your hand over your heart for our country. (Jones denies saying this.) That’s the way I feel about it. Just do something else to protest, away from the National Anthem. It’s our National Anthem.”

At halftime, a Baltimore policeman stands guard near the beer stands. All is calm. “This is easy overtime. Just a few drunks,” he says.

What has changed in America since 2012?

“Young people have a different mind-set now. They’re more selfish. More violent.” He tilts his head toward the roar behind him. “You could say the same about the NFL.”

“A lot has changed,” his partner weighs in.

Are police disrespected? Misunderstood?

“Nah, people just don’t care no more. About anything.”
Jon is a black guy in his late 20s; he's wearing an oversized No. 21 Sean Taylor jersey and a flat-billed Redskins cap pulled so low that it hides his eyebrows. He doesn’t want to give his name with his words, he says, “because of my job.”

Of Kaepernick, he says: “He has every right to [kneel]. I wouldn’t, personally. But he has the right to do that.”

On the debate: “Everything [Trump] says is the worst thing ever. It’s kind of comical now.” Five seconds pass. “I think that might help him in a way.”

There’s less than a minute to play on the field. The Redskins lead 16-10 but the Ravens are marching. A white mom and her prepubescent son watch what will prove to be the game’s most pivotal play on a plasma screen near the restrooms. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco lofts one deep toward the back corner of the end zone, where Breshad Perriman has beaten Norman. The ball sticks in Perriman’s gloves as his feet chatter on the end zone’s last blades of green grass. Zebraed arms go up. The ensuing eruption stings the ears. The building moves. “We won the game!” the mom screams at her son, shaking him by the shoulders in a manner that would get him taken away from her under different circumstances. Ravens fans pogo all around them. “We won the game!” she repeats. The boys’ eyes are alight, basking in his mom’s happiness. He doesn’t seem to know what happened, but he can’t produce a big enough smile.

Back up the tunnel, a replay on the massive video screen shows that Perriman only got one foot inbounds. The TD is overturned. Flacco’s final pass, an incompletion over the middle that exposes receiver Mike Wallace to a linebacker’s shoulder, leaving Wallace on all fours for two minutes, ends the game.

In the Redskins’ locker room, tight end Vernon Davis is asked about the debate. The 32-year-old veteran, a firebrand when he played with Kaepernick in San Francisco, says, “I just try to stay in my lane and not worry about politics and just let all that stuff play out.”

Later, the Ravens’ volunteer marching band—150 strong, neatly choreographed, nattily dressed—emerges from beneath the stadium, marching in lockstep toward the players’ parking lot. Redskins linebacker Trent Murphy walks behind them, all by himself. It was a physical game, and Murphy plays one of the sport’s most physical positions, but he isn’t limping. In solitude he ascends the slow-rising ramp, the fading sun lighting his red hair. He’s approached from behind.

Is it weird returning to the world like this, after the spectacle that just went down in there?

He smiles. “It’s weirder in January or February, when the season’s over and you’re done,” he says. “It’s like walking into a Narnia wardrobe.”

A football question follows, because it seems called for after that first one, but a thought lingers, drowning out the answer. Will that kid remember the moment with his mom—that beautiful synapse that fired between them. Or is it gone? Will it vanish from their memory banks because a stranger’s shoe touched too many white blades of grass and not enough green ones? Is that all it takes? What else but football’s fickle, vicious hand could obliterate it? What else but football could create it in the first place?

Ravens players
(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

D

own the block from where the sunset and the evening lights paint the Washington Monument orange, Ashley Fernandez and Sean Jackson, two attractive young African-American friends, sidle up to the bar at Clyde’s Saloon, a popular Capitol Hill hangout. Sean wears a distressed Redskins hoodie and ballcap, Ashley a purple Ravens sweater. It’s been a couple hours since Washington won, but Ashley doesn’t want to talk about it.

If Football in America brings people together, as is suggested repeatedly over a month on the road, then this night is surely an example, because the Redskins-Ravens game is about the only facet of the sport that doesn’t get discussed between these two disparate parties.

Today’s NFL, Sean says, is “more sensitive. All the new penalties and rules. The media. All the so-called ‘storylines’ and reactions and responses. The reactions to the reactions. Social media. . . .”

“If you’re an NFL player and you don’t have a Twitter and an Instagram account and all this other stuff, it’s like you don’t even exist,” Ashley says disapprovingly.

“Football will change,” Sean believes. “It will turn into more of a flag sport. Not anytime soon, though. We all love it too much.”

We live in a violent country,” Sean Jackson says. “This culture of violence that Trump is speaking—relaxing gun laws, building a border wall, rounding up Muslims. . . . That mind-set exists in this country. That he has a following, it helps you understand why football is still so popular.”

The TV above the bar is switched from Sunday Night Football (Giants-Packers) to the presidential debate—another fraction of a Nielsen point lost. “More people are behind Trump than you think,” Sean says with a fatalistic smile. “People just don’t like [Clinton].”

“Trump people—they don’t admit it, but a lot of them just don’t like the fact that there’s a black man in the White House,” Ashley says, delicately forking blackened catfish. “We forget how jarring that is to some people.”

“And they don’t want a woman in the White House,” Sean adds.

“Flat out. Forget the issues.”

“This election is our country’s favorite reality TV show right now,” Sean says.

“I don’t know. . . the NFL is up there,” Ashley responds.

Out of nowhere, the skunky smell of unburned cannabis permeates the well-to-do pub, with its $25 entrees, dark wood walls and pricey oil paintings. Someone in here is holding.

“It’s legal here in D.C.,” Sean points out. He couldn’t be more transparent about his recreational use of the plant. He cites its effects on him—spurts of productivity and generosity—and agrees with Bob Marley’s prophecy, that “herb will be the healing of the Nations.”

“It can be that for the NFL, too,” he says. “It’s so much less toxic than what they give players [for pain]. Right now, [opioids and NSAIDs] are the players’ only pain-medicine option if they’re not trying to get suspended.”

What started off tentatively is now a rollicking conversation. Entrees have been eaten. There’s been a shift change among bartenders.

Sean and Ashley individually defend 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s right to peacefully protest during the National Anthem, but Sean says he would have done it differently. “I would have stood and raised a fist. “You don’t need to explain that.”

They both wonder aloud about an overlap between Americans who defend the military against Kaepernick’s perceived disrespect, and those who defend football, who stand up for its violence. A brief bar game ensues: Name some language and tactics that the armed forces and football have in common.

Throw a bomb.

Ground attack.

“It kind of goes back to Trump,” Sean says. “We live in a violent country. All these gun murders in Chicago. This violent sport that we’re all in love with. This culture of violence that Trump is speaking—relaxing gun laws, building a border wall, rounding up Muslims. . . . That mind-set exists in this country. That he has a following, it helps you understand why football is still so popular.”

Colin Kaepernick
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

I

t doesn’t take much of a leap to get from violence to hatred, and vice versa. NFL players experience that nasty intermingling every day. It’s been about 12 hours since his Seahawks lost a 25-20 heartbreaker to the Saints in New Orleans, and receiver Doug Baldwin looks worn down. The deep bags under his eyes suggest that he’s not sleeping well. He says his back hurts. He could be anywhere, but at the moment he’s settled into a faux-wood booth at an otherwise empty Subway restaurant, scrolling through a selection of Tweets from recent weeks. They’re typical for what he encounters every time he opens his so-called fan mail, scans his social media mentions or checks his email in-box—but that doesn’t make them any easier to endure. It’s all there, even in 2016, all the hatred, venom and racism, almost all of it delivered anonymously online.

Might need to kill [Steven] Hauschka, someone has written of Baldwin’s Seattle teammate, referring to a crucial field goal the kicker missed.

Hauschka go kill yourself!!!!

Baldwin sighs. “Yeah, that’s pretty typical.”

He reads on, through comments pertaining to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Newton’s dealings with the NFL’s commissioner.

Cam wanna talk to Goodell?? . . . I hope Roger call him a n-----.

Cam Newton is just a pussy . . . take your pimp suit and be a n----- elsewhere.

I hope that stupid n----- cam newton has brain damage and dies in his sleep tonight.

I don’t know how to put this, but to some people the NFL is basically modern-day slavery,” Baldwin says. “Don’t get me wrong, we get paid a lot of money. [But] there’s a sense of ‘shut up and play,’ that this is entertainment for other people. Then, when we go out in public we’re like zoo animals. We’re not human beings.”

“Pretty typical s--- we get,” Baldwin says, scrolling through vitriol directed at Norman, the Redskins cornerback; Seattle’s offense; the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton. Weeks later, the wife of an opposing player will tell Baldwin’s teammate, Richard Sherman, that he deserves to be castrated because of a play he made on the field. “We’re not unique to it. Every public figure gets it.”

What’s different for athletes, he says, is the racial nature of the casually-lobbed insults. Whereas Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem, the Seahawks this season have been locking arms in an alternative demonstration of pregame unity. Baldwin, meanwhile, has met with police-monitoring groups, beat cops, the Washington attorney general, various mayors in and around Seattle, and local business leaders. He’s trying to create a dialogue on issues that impact the society in which he lives. And this is what people have written him:

F--- you n----- boy

Move back to Africa if u don’t like it here

Shut your piehole and go tear an ACL

Black fatigue and NFL fatigue are setting in all across the nation

Hope you break your neck and become paralyzed a------

Doug Baldwin
(Steve Dykes/Getty Images)

“I don’t know how to put this, but to some people the NFL is basically modern-day slavery,” Baldwin says.

“Don’t get me wrong, we get paid a lot of money.” He pauses here, picking his words carefully. “There’s a sense of ‘shut up and play,’ that this is entertainment for other people. Then, when we go out in public we’re like zoo animals. We’re not human beings. I can’t go to the grocery store and just buy groceries like a normal person. It becomes an issue, a burden and so. . . I haven’t checked my mail in a while.”

He’s asked if there’s a tie between everything going on in America—protests over police brutality and income inequality, racial tension, the craziest presidential race in memory—and how athletes seem more likely to speak up on issues than they did in recent years. Baldwin says it’s not a coincidence. He says Harry Edwards, the renowned sociologist who helped the Seahawks plan their unity demonstration, told them, “The fight is the same. The framework is a little different. The times have changed. The environment has changed. The climate has changed. But the actual issue hasn’t changed, and that’s what we’re dealing with.”

“I don’t want to overstate or oversimplify but this is our modern-day issue,” Baldwin says. “It’s all so pertinent right now, because you’ve got the election, you’ve got issues between police officers and their community, you have all these stories coming out, all these things coming to light. It’s a good thing, obviously. But it’s like when you rip off a Band-Aid. That s--- hurts. Sometimes you’re still bleeding a little bit. But that’s how you start the healing process.”

He’s asked a question, but he interrupts, and therein lies his answer: Does this all force everyone to—

“Confront what’s really there,” he says.