Time To Stand Up:
Inspired by a young hero, DeSean Jackson takes on bullying
By MICHAEL ROSENBERG
DeSean Jackson wants you to stay still and listen. This seems an odd request coming from one of the NFL’s fastest and most animated players. But Jackson, the Eagles’ star receiver, is spreading a message that even rival fans should embrace: Bullying is a major problem; it’s not an acceptable part of growing up, and we all need to deal with it.
“I’m talking to everybody,” he told SI last week, and he does mean everybody: victims, bullies and bystanders.
Jackson did not ask his agent to pick a cause out of a hat to help his image. The cause found him last winter, in the form of a 13-year-old boy from outside Philadelphia named Nadin Khoury, whose favorite athlete happens to be one DeSean Jackson.
One day last January, neighborhood bullies, who had long tormented Nadin, took the abuse to a new level. They kicked and punched him and dragged him through the snow. They hoisted him into a tree and hung him from his jacket on an iron fence. Like most bullying incidents, the attack would have remained a dark secret, but word got out for two reasons: Video of the attack was recorded on one of the bullies’ cellphones, and when Nadin got back on his feet, he stood up for himself. He told his mother, who informed the police and the school district, and when local news outlets reported the incident, Nadin spoke out, even as the story went national.
“It hit a chord with me,” Jackson says. “I wanted to go help him and stand up for him. In this world a lot of people get bullied.”
When Nadin courageously shared his story on The View, Jackson surprised him by walking onto the set. Nadin was so overwhelmed by the sight of his hero that he dissolved into tears. Since then the two have become friends. Jackson took Nadin to the ESPYs awards ceremony in July, and they keep in touch.
But Nadin is just one kid. Jackson wants to influence thousands. This past spring, while the NFL was locked out, Jackson was locked in on his mission. He spoke to students at five schools in one day. He appeared before the Oakland all-city student council. He went to San Quentin to hear prisoners tell their stories. He spent the off-season working with Leila Steinberg of Alternative Intervention Models, a nonprofit organization in Los Angeles that specializes in helping kids through arts and athletics.
Jackson has discovered what so many other athletes haven’t: They are in a unique position to fight bullying. In almost any social setting, athletes are the biggest, strongest and most popular people. They help set the tone for what is socially acceptable. Steinberg works with a lot of performers, but she said, “I have the artists that I need. I couldn’t get to 50 percent of the kids. DeSean helped me reach them.”
Jackson seems like an unlikely role model. He occasionally says something impolitic, and he celebrates touchdowns two to three business days before he scores them. But that is precisely why he spreads this message so well. He does not speak from a pedestal but from the heart. His speeches stand out for what he doesn’t say. He does not scream at bullies or even chastise them. His message is inclusive. He wants students to understand: At some point, in some way, we have all been picked on, and we have all picked on others. That includes Jackson, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in L.A.
“DeSean always speaks in the first person,” Steinberg says. “He talks about how he was bullied and how he became a bully. Everything that comes out of our mouth lands somewhere—and in an instant you can save a life or destroy one.”
There are three target audiences for his speeches, and most of us fall into all three. There are the bullies. There are the bullied. And there are those who stand by and do nothing rather than risk the wrath of bullies.
“A lot of kids are scared to speak up, scared to tell their parents, scared to tell the teachers,” Jackson says. “At a young age, it’s so hard to do anything about it. I’m at a point where I’ve made it and I can help.”
Jackson and Steinberg are developing an antibullying curriculum to spread throughout the country. They are trying to stop a cycle: The bullied become bullies. If we simplify the problem—if we break it down into evildoers versus victims—we won’t solve it. Jackson says, “I’m just trying to prevent it. [Bullying] is not a job. It’s not going to help you in life.”
Jackson now has two jobs: One, with the Eagles, that everybody wants, and another, as an antibullying ambassador, that any athlete can have. Nadin Khoury’s story struck a chord with him. Perhaps Jackson’s story will resonate with his counterparts in all sports. Professional athletes don’t have to worry about bullying. But it would be nice if they did.