By Ronda Racha Penrice

For Anquan Boldin, police-involved deaths like Michael Brown in Missouri in 2014 and Philando Castile in Minnesota two years later are no longer just headlines. They're reasons for making his voice heard, along with that of other former NFL players.

The tragic reality of police shootings hit home for Boldin on Oct. 18, 2015. That day, Boldin, then a receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, and then-teammate Colin Kaepernick had beaten the Baltimore Ravens that afternoon. Hours later, Boldin found out his first cousin Corey Jones was shot and killed by a police officer in Florida in the wee hours of that Sunday morning.

“For me it didn’t make sense because, anybody who knows Corey, knows that he’s probably the last person to get into any kind of trouble, especially with the law,” Boldin recently told NBCBLK in a phone interview. “This is a guy that, when we were younger, we couldn’t get to do anything outside of what was right.”

Jones had car trouble and was on the phone with roadside assistance when a Palm Beach Gardens police officer, Nouman K. Raja, in plainclothes stopped to investigate. Raja said Jones became threatening, and he shot Jones three times. Although Jones had a licensed weapon, there was no evidence that he used it.

Raja was charged with attempted murder and manslaughter, and his trial is scheduled to begin Feb. 22.

“I couldn’t understand for the life of me how somebody can break down on the side of the road and that be a death sentence for them,” Boldin said.

The year after Jones' death, Kaepernick, then the 49ers quarterback, began to kneel during the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and racial and social inequality.

As Boldin and his family battled to bring his cousin’s killer to justice, Boldin found another likeminded player and kindred spirit in Malcolm Jenkins, a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles. Together they founded the Players Coalition in 2017.

Since its launch, the Players Coalition has visited Capitol Hill as well as worked to change legislation in various states. In Atlanta on Jan. 30, the coalition announced that it was distributing $2 million in grants to six nonprofits in the fight against racial and social inequality, made possible through the NFL’s financial commitment of $89 million to the organization and its causes.

Those nonprofits are the National Juvenile Defender Center; Communities in Schools; The Justice Collaborative; Year Up; Center for Policing Equity; and the Advancement Project. These groups meet the organization’s criteria to work with those “that can provide evidence-based solutions to achieve change and make a lasting difference" on affected citizens, Boldin told The Miami Herald.

Last year, the Players Coalition used its platform to raise awareness around two crucial legislative issues, lobbying to raise the age of those entering the juvenile justice system in Massachusetts from 7 to 12, and passing Florida’s Amendment 4 to restore voting rights to some felons in Florida.

In Massachusetts, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty wrote an op-ed with team owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft that ran in The Boston Globe on Feb. 3, 2018 (Super Bowl Sunday) that Boldin said helped influence the bill’s passage. Boldin — who won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2013 — helped register Florida voters ahead of the midterm elections and wrote an op-ed in The Orlando Sentinel to encourage voters to support Amendment 4 at the polls.

Almost immediately after it launched, the Players Coalition tried to move beyond the on-the-field national anthem protests, Jenkins said.

“When Kaepernick first took a knee, within like a couple of weeks, you had guys from all around the league trying to organize,” he told NBCBLK. “Guys had been doing work in the area of social justice for a while; but up until that point, they had been doing it in silence. So there was an effort to try to organize and have one collective voice, one collective message, and see if we can really leverage our influence, our resources, to make a greater impact on what we had been already doing.”

Jenkins and his Eagle teammates made clear their support of rapper Meek Mill, a Philadelphia native whose real name is Robert Rihmeek Williams, by running out to Mill's “Dreams and Nightmares” at the start of last year's Super Bowl. Mill, who was incarcerated for a probation violation in 2017, became a high-profile example of how the criminal justice system can trap young black men even when they have transformed their lives.

Boldin learned the power of his platform while lending his support to Oxfam, an organization that fights poverty-inducing injustices in over 90 countries. Just prior to his cousin’s death, he aligned his self-named foundation with Oxfam and traveled to Senegal to witness how corporations displaced people in search of gold and other valuable minerals. For two years, the organization had tried to get a meeting with Congress. With him onboard, it took only a month.

“It kind of turned a lightbulb on for me that people want to hear what athletes have to say,” he said.

Choosing to work with the NFL, though, is not a popular decision with all players, including Carolina Panthers safety Eric Reid. Reid called the NFL's financial deal with the Players Coalition a “charade.”

He accused NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell of agreeing to a deal that really only gives the owners an easy way out to end the protests.

“He’s trying to make it as easy possible to do that for the owners," Reid said in an interview with Slate in November 2017. "He’s going to present them with a proposal saying: ‘Look you really don’t have to do anything. We’re just going to shift this money from this area and just move it here.’”

Boldin, however, sees tremendous potential in working with NFL owners to help solve the many racial and social inequities in the United States.

“I think the NFL can play a huge role,” Boldin said. “It’s one thing for players to go and advocate for reform or change, but think about if you have 32 billionaires come in and use their voice — how much stronger will that voice be?”

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