Former Ohio State cornerback Malcolm Jenkins recently gave a silent but powerful interview.
Standing in front of his Philadelphia Eagles locker, Jenkins held up a series of handmade signs with statistics that reflected his frustration regarding racial and criminal-justice issues. “You’re not listening,” read one of the signs he raised repeatedly.
Current members of the Ohio State football team are listening. Jenkins spoke to them while serving as an honorary coach for the spring game, and several have been inspired to voice their opinion on societal issues on social media.
Offensive lineman Branden Bowen might be the most outspoken member of the Buckeyes.
“As athletes, it’s our moral duty to use the platform we’ve been given to be the voice for those who would never be heard otherwise,” he tweeted recently.
Not everyone agrees, of course, and some are vocal in responding. Bowen’s replies have been firm but respectful. He wrote that NFL players kneeling during the national anthem has never been about the flag, and he rejected the suggestion that players don’t respect the police or troops.
“It’s NEVER been about the flag,” Bowen wrote. “Once people realize that maybe they can open their mind to the discussion we’re trying to have.”
He later added, “We kneel for those whose country disrespected THEM. For those whose country FAILED them.”
The activism is in part a byproduct of the Real Life Wednesdays and other programs the team introduced in recent years to encourage players to develop as citizens as well as athletes.
OSU director of player development Ryan Stamper, who spearheads Real Life Wednesdays, played for Urban Meyer at Florida and was a police officer before joining Ohio State. He has no problem with players speaking their mind as long as they do so appropriately.
“These players are using football to go to college and get an education,” he said. “I tell players all the time, you’re not (just) a football player. … Branden Bowen happens to be a student-athlete football player. Football isn’t first. Branden Bowen is first.”
Learning to embrace the uncomfortable is an essential element of the Ohio State culture. That extends beyond the weight room and the mental challenges of playing at a demanding program.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about (social injustice) and shy away from it,” Stamper said. “We like to be proactive and have conversations. Our players might not like it if they’re not getting enough playing time or certain things when it comes to football. But I’m 100 percent positive our players really believe that we care about them.”
That helps the Buckeyes bridge contentious issues, even if there’s no consensus among them. Former OSU linebacker Joshua Perry, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks last week, said the bond between players transcends political differences.
“The guys in the locker room have gone through a lot together — wins and losses and tough workouts,” Perry said. “I’ve seen guys cry and open up about their family situations and their personal lives. From that, it’s a lot easier for us to have conversations in the locker room.”
He specifically noted white teammates who have opposing political viewpoints from his.
“My family never struggled growing up, but as a young black man, I saw things through a different lens,” Perry said. “We were able to talk about that in a constructive manner because of that respect.”
Stamper and Meyer invited Perry and Ohio State professor Robert Bennett to speak at a Real Life Wednesdays to give their perspective from a more liberal point of view, then scheduled a session with conservative lawyer Larry Elder.
“Were there black players who disagreed with him? Absolutely,” Stamper said. “Were there players and coaches who agreed with him? Absolutely. But we had the conversation. I think that’s why we get so much respect from our players, and why we don’t have as many of those issues.”
Such dialogue headed off any potential issue regarding the national anthem last year. After team leaders had a conversation with Stamper, Meyer and defensive coordinator Greg Schiano, players decided they would not kneel or lock arms during the anthem.
Instead, they chose to do something they believed to be more constructive. An event was organized bringing together underprivileged youths from the Roy Hall Driven foundation with police officers and firefighters.
“We ate, talked, took pictures,” Stamper said. “Our players felt like that was making a difference and sending a message more than going out and taking a knee.”
Stamper said he doubts there will be discussion about the anthem this season. But regarding Buckeyes expressing their views on issues society faces, Stamper is all for it.
“These problems in this country are problems they’re facing firsthand, some of them more than the normal kid,” he said. “I don’t mind them speaking on it. My hat’s off to Branden for talking about it.”