Last season, Chris Long made football history by winning a Super Bowl while playing for free. The Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman donated his entire 2017 base salary of $1 million to charity: his first six checks went toward scholarships for students in his hometown of Charlottesville, Va. His final 10 checks supported educational equity organizations in the three cities where he has played professionally: St. Louis, Boston and Philadelphia.
Long, 33, has always aspired to be more than just a football player, even as he remains a key part of one of the NFL’s best pass-rushing teams. “I want to squeeze every drop out of my potential,” he says, “as far as affecting the world around me.” To that end, he has helped raise some $2 million to build 34 water wells serving more than 130,000 people in Tanzania. And when Eagles teammate Malcolm Jenkins raised a fist during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, Long placed a hand on his shoulder in support. “It’s important that people know that white people care too,” Long says. “What we’re talking about is comprehensive injustice and inequality in America, which is undeniable to me.”
Long has decided to return for what will be his 11th NFL season—but his legacy may well last long after his time on the field. While working out in a Charlottesville gym in March, a stranger told Long that he had donated a month’s pay to the United Way. If you can do it, the man said to Long, so can I.
In an interview with TIME, Long, one of TIME’s 2018 Next Generation Leaders, talked about his motivations for giving back, how last summer’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville inspired him to act, and why athletes have a right to speak out.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)
You donated your entire season salary a year ago to charity, and have spoken out on social justice issues. Where does the motivation to do these sorts of things come from?
Well, maybe my best or my worst quality is not being able to bite my tongue and share my opinion very openly. I think of myself as a complete person, not just a football player and athlete. I can get involved in these discussions; my occupation doesn’t preclude me from that. People want athletes to think of themselves as no different from everybody else. Well, here it is. I am no different than anybody else.
In September you announced that you’d donate your first six 2017 game checks to scholarships for kids in Charlottesville. Then in October, you said you’ve give your remaining checks to educational equity organizations in St. Louis, Boston, and New England. How did you arrive at that decision?
Nothing is ever simple. Every season that you’re 30 years and older, you take it one year at a time. I was kind of feeling unsure about whether I wanted to keep playing. And I said to myself, I’d really like to do something special this year. I’m not sure what it is, but I’d like to play for a greater purpose.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve been blessed playing for 10 years. Made a lot of money. So, it wasn’t something that was really going to put me out. I wanted to try to work for free. I was like, ‘I’ve never heard of anybody doing it, I think it would test me to see if I really love what I’m doing.’ And then the Charlottesville thing happened.
There’s a lot of social unrest in our country, and I’d been speaking on those issues with Colin [Kaepernick] for almost two years now. And I said, am I really interested in bettering our country or am I just talking about it? And I want to be a man of action. So I said, well, what’s the most efficient way that I can immediately try to change the cities that I’ve played in and make a small difference?
And that was through education, and educational equity. And the quickest gateway to a better tomorrow for our country, I believe, is education. Nuts and bolts. Getting people opportunities. Integrating our society better.
What impact did President Trump’s response to the Charlottesville tragedy in August— he said there were “some very fine people on both sides” at a white nationalist rally—have on your decision do donate your salary?
Well, it definitely sped it up and it added Charlottesville into the fold. We were really getting hammered with negativity. I got real tired of people coming to work and saying, “What’s wrong with your hometown? What’s going on there?” What happened in Charlottesville wasn’t Charlottesville. Anybody that lives there knows those people came from outside and the people in Charlottesville that I see on a regular basis—I live there, I raise my son there—are good people that are combating that.
That was the shame of it. The President’s response really lit a fire under me to continue to fight for what’s right because when we have somebody who’s the leader of the free world and he’s not willing to stand up in that one moment for the people that need him so badly, I think that’s what angered me the most.
If you disagree with the President politically or you have issues with him any day of the week, that was the day that we could all kind of stand together and say, well, we can all agree that this is wrong. He didn’t do it. Any influencer, especially somebody from Charlottesville, had to step up. And we’ll continue to step up.
Why did you put your arm on the shoulder of Eagles teammate Malcolm Jenkins as he raised his first during the national anthem?
I discussed this with Malcolm in a two, three-hour period before our preseason game [on August 17]. I said, “Man, I’m angry. I’m feeling sick to my stomach and I’m not going to be able to sleep at night unless I let people know that I’m here for you. I agree with what you’re protesting. I might feel awkward putting my fist in the air, as a white guy. But I want to put my arm around you if that’s cool. I don’t want to steal the spotlight. But it’s important that people know that white people care, too. And white people agree with you.”
And that’s the bottom line. In America, we have a lot to work on with criminal justice reform. Bail reform, drug sentencing reform. It started out people talking about police brutality. But what we’re talking about is comprehensive injustice and inequality in America, which is undeniable to me.
You don’t have to kneel to care. It’s all about your productivity off the field. If you take a knee and you’re not doing anything, what’s the value in that? And there might be some guys who haven’t done anything protest-wise, who have been bettering their communities and fighting inequality for years.
We’ve gotten so binary in all these discussions. It’s really about making an effort and going out in your community and using your platform as an athlete to step outside your comfort zone and say, “What I’m going to say is going to piss some people off. But I don’t care. It’s the right thing.”
Back in February, after Fox News host Laura Ingraham implored LeBron James, who was critical of President Trump, to “shut up and dribble,” you responded with some pointed tweets about how Fox has featured various singers and actors and cultural figures on their airwaves talking about politics and social issues. Why’d you weigh in on that one?
Sometimes when I’m looking at my timeline, it’s almost like a compulsion. I’m like, “I can’t take this shit.”
I’m looking at my timeline and I’m seeing, on both sides of the aisle, people that are just full of it. And in that instance, and in so many instances, Fox News is kind of full of it. Just like a lot of news networks but they don’t hide it as well. And it hit close to home with me because LeBron has done everything right. He’s kind of the king of the world and he’s been a family man. He’s been involved in educational programs that he’s given a ton of money to.
For Laura Ingraham to go after LeBron for speaking out politically is ridiculous. Especially when you look at who they have on their network doing political commentary. The basis of her argument is that LeBron, your occupation precludes you from talking about this stuff. Well, what about everybody else throwing their hat in the ring, whether it’s on Twitter or on your network? You have Ted Nugent. You have Jon Voight. You have Chuck Norris. I love Chuck Norris, but if you’re going to preclude LeBron, why is Chuck Norris on there talking about global warming? Is he a climatologist or a scientist?
I get that all the time as an athlete. Like shut up and play football. It irked me. Why is she attacking LeBron and not Steve Kerr? Why is she attacking LeBron and not myself? I’m not saying that that’s why necessarily. But I do think there’s that mentality.
Your foundation has helped raise some $2 million to build 34 water wells that serve more than 130,000 people in Tanzania. What attracted you to this project?
When I went to Tanzania to climb (Mount) Kilimanjaro in I believe my sixth year in the off season with a teammate, I kind of got face-to-face with some Third World poverty on a scale that I hadn’t seen. I had a beautiful experience in Tanzania that was life-changing that had nothing to do with water. I said to myself, “I want to give back to that place that gave me that experience.” I didn’t want to be like that person that came into Tanzania for a safari or for Kilimanjaro, and just left it in the dust.
By happenstance I ran into some folks from Worldserve International who had been working on the ground in East Africa and Central Africa for almost two decades providing clean water, and I did my research. The way I look at things always is, how can I most efficiently change the world? I want to squeeze every drop out of my potential as far as affecting the world around me. And clean water is the most efficient, effective and transformative cause that I could see. it fit really well in Tanzania because that basic human need and right, they don’t have in that country and in so many countries like Tanzania. And it’s a problem we’ll have to grapple with, eventually, if we’re not careful in the United States.
Based on what you’ve learned, what kind of advice would you offer to a promising NFL player who wanted to have the same off-field impact as you’ve had?
Too often athletes think there’s these norms that I have to fit into and there are people that I have to please. And there are people that I have to stay away from pissing off.
Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve been lucky. I made a lot of money playing. But I don’t feel like I have a boss, and that includes the commissioner, coaches, my family. I’m going to do what’s right and I’m going to do what’s true to me. You’re your boss and the best brand you can have is you. It’s not some BS PC brand or a brand that’s going to make you the most money. People want authentic. And it’s going to feel the best when you’re authentic.
Any Super Bowl prediction for this upcoming season?
It’d be nice to have a three-peat. [Long won the 2017 Super Bowl with New England]. We have a great team but the hardest thing in football, especially, is to repeat. That’s the challenge. That’s what drives you.