From left to right: The 49ers’ Eli Harold, Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid
(Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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.”
(Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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.
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.)
(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.”
(Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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.”
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.
“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.”
(Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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.
“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------
(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.