The Philadelphia Eagles might be making drastic changes at the quarterback position on the field, but the changes they are enacting off the playing field are even greater.
The organization — one that has forever supported good causes and looked to make institutional changes — has tackled the issue of social justice head-on. Five months after “repulsed” team owner Jeffrey Lurie spoke out on the senseless killing of George Floyd, the Eagles announced they were doling out $460,000 to 24 local non-profits through their Social Justice Fund.
The league-wide program was first established in 2018 as a way for players to work toward addressing sometimes uncomfortable issues that are important to them. Things like combatting systemic racism and talking honestly about police reform. The Eagles have expanded on that commitment.
“It was really important to us that it went beyond that,” said Julie Hirshey, Eagles Director of Community Relations. “We wanted to begin conversations and do work on these issues that, unfortunately, have been around for years and years.”
The application process is “invite-only,” according to Hirshey, based on suggestions from Eagles players or referrals from current non-profit partners. Sometimes there are repeat grant winners — for example, 13 of the 24 were new organizations in 2020 — like Education Law Center.
They applied for a grant in 2018 and 2019 but didn’t get it. But Rodney McLeod remembered their mission to ensure public education for all children regardless of race or financial background. On Monday night, he and Carson Wentz jumped on a Zoom call to let them know they had been awarded a $25,000 grant.
“It’s important and we wanted to thank them for their efforts being able to fight for equality and education, for all Philadelphia students,” McLeod told Heavy.com. “For us, one of the things we wanted to focus on this year was any systemic racism and put education at the forefront.”
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Focusing on 4 Key Social Justice Issues
This year, the Eagles chose to focus on four key social justice issues: educational equality, election voting, positive transformation of policing, and strengthening Black communities. The team received a whopping 75 grant applications, the most ever in the program’s three-year history. Players research the work that each non-profit does before whittling down the list.
“The players read every application,” said Hirshey. “They take an interest in what each non-profit does and then which ones best address the issue areas that are important to them.”
And it’s more than lip service to the players, especially for an activist like McLeod. He saw his own non-profit, Change Our Future, receive a $10,000 grant while helping choose 10 organizations dedicated to police reform. One repeat winner — Police Athletic League of Philadelphia — was able to build a children’s playground last year thanks to crucial funding.
“It’s important and it’s usually fun just to learn a lot about these organizations in the community that you normally don’t hear a lot about,” McLeod said. “This climate that we’re under, COVID and all, and how important it is for us to help all of these organizations and keep their mission alive.”
Added Wentz: “I’m truly inspired by these organizations and the work they put forth throughout the year to make our city a better place. As a member of the Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council, I’m blessed to have had this opportunity to learn about these amazing groups.”
Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council
Malcolm Jenkins — the deeply admired former Eagles captain — guided the Eagles Social Justice Leadership Council in 2018 as a way to give back to his adopted city, with staunch support from McLeod and the Eagles organization. It is a collection of players and club executives who regularly discuss topics related to social justice reform and identify potential grant recipients.
Today, seats at council meetings are hot-ticket items but that wasn’t always the case. McLeod recalled a sparse start when they had to knock on doors in the locker room: four guys made up the inaugural group: Jenkins, McLeod, Chirs Long, Nelson Agholor. That was it. One year later, Avonte Maddox and Derek Barnett joined.
“I remember Malcolm and I trying to bring on other dudes,” McLeod said. “It was challenging.”
Now they are seeing record numbers, including big names like Wentz, Zach Ertz, Jake Elliott, Darius Slay, Malik Jackson, Brandon Graham, DeSean Jackson. Those “core members” are joined by high-ranking officials like Lurie, Hirshey, general manager Howie Roseman, president Don Smolenski, and head coach Doug Pederson. Everyone has a voice.
“This year, we have a good variety of individuals, both black and white players,” McLeod said. “It’s good to hear from different voices and what their outlook is and how they view these situations. And I think that’s a good representation of our country right now having and being able to hear from both sides of the spectrum.”