On Sunday, the 10-2 Eagles will face off against the 9-3 Los Angeles Rams in a gridiron clash of high drama, one that might be a preview of a playoff showdown. A far less dramatic storyline — one perhaps only of interest to us here at The Citizen — is that the game represents a clash of Citizen columnists.
Though he’s now injured, the Rams have been led this season by former Eagle Connor Barwin, who penned a weekly civic season column for us the last two seasons in which he compared Philly’s civic health versus that of each Eagles’ opponent; this season, Eagles’ safety Malcolm Jenkins has taken us inside his groundbreaking campaign to reform our criminal justice system.
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Earlier this week, I caught up with Barwin, who started excitedly shouting “Smith Playground, baby!” before updating me on where the signature playground refurbishment project of his Make The World Better Foundation stands; it’s in the final phase of construction, and will have, among other amenities, two turf baseball fields, a 7-acre walking path, new fencing, new signage, and an outdoor gym.
Here’s the thing, and it’s why I was reaching out to Barwin: He and Jenkins are not aberrations. Everywhere you turn, it seems you’re likely to find an Eagle doing something to make his community better, engaging in the world beyond the orbit of his own ego. To name just a few examples: There’s wide receiver Torrey Smith, paying for 46 adoptions at an animal shelter and tweeting, in response to Meek Mill being deemed a danger to society: “Brock Turner is a danger to society.”
There’s Carson Wentz, establishing the AO1 Foundation and paying for service dogs for Philadelphia area youth with physical and cognitive disabilities. And, of course, there’s defensive end Chris Long, who has donated his entire $1 million salary to benefit educational charities, including Summer Search, a Philly-based nonprofit that combats the achievement gap in our schools.
What is it with these guys? “There are a number of things going on,” says Barwin. “There’s a culture. The Eagles do a great job of connecting players who want to make a difference with people and groups in the community. When I wanted to start MTWB, they introduced me to [current Managing Director and former Director of Parks and Rec] Mike DiBerardinis.”
When he first arrived in Philly, Barwin took note of a plaque on the wall of the team’s facility that features a quote from veteran tight end Brent Celek about the importance of giving back. Eagles brass models community service in myriad ways — the team’s Autism Challenge raises funds for research and the Eagles Charitable Foundation focuses on improving health outcomes for low income children — but, at the player level, the culture of “giving back” isn’t necessarily imposed from above.
Barwin says a lot of it comes from the players themselves, and stems from their unique relationship with their fans. “We’d sit around the locker room and talk about how intense that fan base is,” he says. “It’s really unique. Players really feel this need to give something back to those fans. I can’t tell you how many younger players would ask me for advice about how to set up a foundation, because they felt this need.”
The Eagles just might be the nation’s most progressive, social impact-minded pro sports team … yet they play in an increasingly socially irresponsible league. The NFL lies about concussions, poo-poohs domestic violence, pays its cheerleaders below minimum wage, and has the weakest union in pro sports while paying its commissioner a mere $40 million a year.
Of course, other factors are at play, too. Social media has given players’ voices an authentic outlet; in past generations, if an athlete wanted to help shape the times in which he lived, he had to rely on the middleman skills of out of shape, middle-aged cynics, otherwise known as sportswriters. And let’s not underestimate the impact of one King James. “When the best athlete in the world is outspoken and involved, it sets the stage for all of us,” Barwin says of LeBron James.
But what’s truly revolutionary here is the degree to which the Eagles have embraced these changing times. Somewhere, Vince Lombardi is gyrating in his grave, seeing all these athletes weighing in on societal issues. The common parlance in the sports page is that such high-mindedness represents a “distraction” from the serious work of football.
“Ah, yes, the ‘D’ word,” laughs Julie Hirshey, the team’s Director of Community Relations. Bucking that small-minded view, Eagles brass has long seen the symbiosis between on-field success and community engagement. It’s a connection I first saw back in the late 90s, when then-76ers team president and part owner Pat Croce violated his pledge to refrain from making basketball decisions and jettisoned star player Derrick Coleman, after he’d refused to go on a team visit to Children’s Hospital. “You’ll never win a championship with a player who won’t visit sick kids,” Croce said.
If the Eagles do exude a culture of service, Hirshey says, it’s because that’s what good guys do: They serve. Yes, as Croce would acknowledge back in those halcyon days, you need guys who can run and jump. But a team doesn’t become a team without individuals willing to put we before me — and the same goes for communities.
No matter your political bent, how can you not love that Malcolm Jenkins was never just about protest for the sake of protest? The dude is going on police ride-alongs, open-mindedly seeking common ground. And how can you not want to be as good and giving as Chris Long? An entire year’s salary? Who does that?
It’s telling that, when I spoke to Hirshey this week, she was calling from Los Angeles. She and another community relations staffer were with the team during their week on the west coast following last Sunday night’s loss at Seattle. On Monday, Hirshey coordinated the visit of seven Eagles — Smith, Mack Hollins, Nigel Bradham, Najee Goode, Jalen Mills, Trey Burton and Steven Means — to Santa Ana, where the players helped build houses with Habitat for Humanity. On Tuesday, all the rookies paid a visit to LA’s Ronald McDonald House.
“The team, including Coach Pederson, thought it was important enough to fly two community relations people out here for the week,” Hirshey says. “Because this is who we are. The owner, the team president, the coach — they all think this philosophy is important.”
The front office walks the walk. Five years ago, when Anne Gordon became the team’s Senior Vice President of Marketing, Media and Communications, she and Team President Don Smolenski held the team’s community service model up to inspection. Like so many other teams, the Eagles would write checks in support of area causes, which made for great photo-ops and feel-good moments. But they wondered if they were really moving the needle. So they launched Eagles Care, a program dedicated to the idea that strong non-profits build strong communities. They still write the checks, but they also lend their expertise to select area nonprofits, helping them to scale.
“Now, our Social Media Director will sit down with our nonprofit partners and show them how to do social media better,” she says. “Or we’ll help them with development. We do a free, full day Eagles Care Summit that brings nonprofits together to focus on capacity building.”
But the environment is the area where the Eagles have innovated the most. Back in 2003, the team broke new ground when they launched Go Green, becoming the first pro sports team to institute comprehensive recycling; install solar panels at their NovaCare Complex; and reimburse employees for purchasing wind energy. When the team travels, they only stay in hotels that meet their lofty environmental standards. And they offset their total energy footprint — “from bus to train to plane” says Hirshey — by planting acres and acres of trees, effectively rendering the organization carbon neutral.
At a time when the public conversation continues to devolve into mean spiritedness and division, a football team, of all things, reminds us of our better selves.
How extreme is the Eagles’ sustainability ethos? When they’re not convinced that opposing stadiums live up to their standards, they’ve been known to load up the Eagles charter plane with their own trash, for proper composting back in Philly.
There’s an irony here, of course. The Eagles just might be the nation’s most progressive, social impact-minded pro sports team…yet they play in an increasingly socially irresponsible league. The NFL lies about concussions, poo-poohs domestic violence, pays its cheerleaders below minimum wage, and has the weakest union in pro sports while paying its commissioner a mere $40 million a year.
If you’re a progressive, you view cheering for the NFL as akin to rooting for big tobacco. If you’re a conservative, you take a cue from our Divider-in-Chief, and see the NFL as symbolic of an America that has lost its way, primarily by tolerating the political expressions of its its mostly black laborers. That’s why trouble might just portend for the league: Television ratings have been down for the past several years, and are down 5.7 percent this year.
Well, note to the NFL: The answer to your woes is right here in Philadelphia. No matter your political bent, how can you not love that Malcolm Jenkins was never just about protest for the sake of protest? The dude is going on police ride-alongs, open-mindedly seeking common ground. And how can you not want to be as good and giving as Chris Long? An entire year’s salary? Who does that? And how can you not admire any organization that is so conscious of its relationship to the planet that it loads up chartered airplanes with its own trash?
Every message we get from our football team is communitarian in nature. In countless ways, they say to us that we’re all in this together; we are all keepers of our brothers and sisters. At a time when the public conversation continues to devolve into mean spiritedness and division, a football team, of all things, reminds us of our better selves. That’s why, with apologies to our beloved Connor, I’m pulling for them to kick L.A.’s ass on Sunday, load up that team plane with trash, and come on home and run the table.Header photo: Philadelphia Eagles volunteering for Habitat for Humanity during their week in Los Angeles. Courtesy Eagles.