Passionate for Activism, Here’s Where This NFL Vet, UVA Alum Keeps Winning

April 4, 2023
Portrait of Rodney McLeod

NFL player Rodney McLeod, a UVA alumnus, recently brought his message to media studies students. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Beneath the navy sport coat Rodney McLeod wore last week during a visit to his alma mater, the former University of Virginia football player and current safety in the National Football League wore a white T-shirt with a message across the chest: “YOU AREN’T LISTENING.”

McLeod, a first-generation college student who graduated from UVA in 2012 with a sociology degree, was a guest of Anna Katherine Clay’s media studies class, “Athletes, Activism and the Media.” Clay, an assistant professor of practice at the University, leads students in this course through historic examples of athlete activists (such as Muhammad Ali and Billie Jean King, among others) and how the media responded to their demonstrations.

It was only fitting, then, that McLeod’s attire reflected a time when he was part of a movement inside an NFL locker room.

On Feb. 4, 2018, McLeod and the Philadelphia Eagles won the Super Bowl. Four months later, after a disagreement over President Donald Trump’s insistence on players standing for the national anthem before games, the Eagles were uninvited by the president to the traditional post-championship visit to the White House.

Rodney McLeod Giving Talk to Student
A packed classroom in Nau Hall listened to McLeod talk about his various experiences on and off the football field. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The story naturally led to a media frenzy. But when reporters flocked to the Eagles’ locker room a few days after Trump’s announcement, they found Philadelphia safety Malcolm Jenkins responding to each question with a series of signs and no spoken words.

Instead of answering questions on why the team wasn’t going to the White House, he wanted to put a spotlight on the important work NFL players were doing in their communities – “CHRIS LONG GAVE HIS ENTIRE YEAR’S SALARY TO EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTIONS,” read one sign – and cite statistics to support their calls for change.

A week later, several Eagles players hung “YOU AREN’T LISTENING” shirts from their locker stalls, a nod to another Jenkins sign and the main point to his presentation.

 

 

McLeod still wears his shirt with pride.

“The reason I wore it today was to reflect on that moment, but also talk about how that moment was just monumental for how powerful media is,” McLeod said last Wednesday outside a classroom in Nau Hall. “It shows there are different ways that you can express your messaging and your stance and views on different societal issues.

“I just thought it would be good to wear; I thought it was fitting for the moment.”

McLeod just finished his 11th NFL season. He’s a free agent coming off a year with the Indianapolis Colts in which he set a career-high for tackles (96) and tackles for loss (eight).

But statistics only tell a part of McLeod’s story. He’s a main contributor off the field through his Change Our Future foundation that aims to lead the movement on advancing programs, opportunities and resources that give youth, families and communities a path toward a healthy and hopeful future. McLeod is also a former board member of the Players Coalition, an independent nonprofit that has worked with more than 1,400 professional athletes, coaches and owners across multiple sports leagues on how to educate and advocate for reform.

In 2020, McLeod was the Eagles’ nominee for the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award, an honor that recognizes a player for outstanding community service activities off the field.

McLeod, a Maryland native who currently resides in Philadelphia, spent an hour with Clay’s class, answering numerous questions from students. It was an impactful visit, Clay said.

“To be able to hear firsthand from professional athletes like Rodney is such an important and impactful way for the students to understand and think critically about what that activism looks like in 2023,” she said.

UVA Today caught up with McLeod afterward to learn more about his work in the community, his UVA experience and his future in football.

Q. Why does activism mean so much to you?

A. I think it matters to me because of the people you’re fighting for and the impact that you’re hoping it leaves on that particular community, individual, whatever it might be. For myself, when I think about a lot of the issues that exist, the Black community is at the forefront of a lot of these issues that I’m addressing. And I feel like I have an obligation, because of my platform, to use my voice to be able to try to bring some awareness to the issues at hand and how to find solutions surrounding those issues.

Q. Why did you create your foundation?

A. The reason my wife [Erika McLeod, a 2013 UVA alumna] and I created Change Our Future was simply because of the effects it’ll have on our youth and understanding that they are our future. So we want to start to form those future leaders of tomorrow; we want to be able to have representation in career fields that have lacked minorities. We want to be able to change the cycles of families. We want to have new generations of college students, similar to my story, and break that cycle and start a new current that creates generational wealth.

If we want things to change, the best way to do it is giving these students a pathway to success.

Q. What did you gain from the UVA experience that helps you now, on and off the field?

A. My wife and I, we like to look at the opportunities we were afforded. Me, being able to go to the University of Virginia. Why? Because of my athletics. My wife, different route. She came here for academics and was able to succeed.

For me, being an example for my community, a lot of what the youth – particularly Black and brown students – sees is, “The only way I can have success is if I’m in the entertainment space.” Yes, I am a product of that, but I also try to express to them how important getting your degree is, and that there’s so much more than entertainment that exists. That’s the access that we’re providing for them; that’s the exposure that we’re bringing to them (through Change Our Future).

I’m trying to help those that are both the future student-athletes and the non-athletes to be interested in careers outside of entertainment. They can still go to a University of Virginia and fulfill their dreams the same way I was able to.

Q. You’re a first-generation college student as well as an undrafted football player who has gone to play 11 seasons in the NFL and has won a Super Bowl. What do you want the youth to draw from your story?

A. One thing about my story, it’s not perfect. There is a lot of struggle; there’s a lot of perseverance that I’ve been able to demonstrate along my way. From being undrafted to making it 11 years, I beat the odds tremendously.

And everyone had an opinion on how my journey would live out, but for me, it was all about my attitude, my work ethic, my support system and level of focus and determination. I think all of those things really embody who I am.

Q. In the aftermath of the shooting on Grounds, you wore customized cleats honoring the victims. How did that tragedy affect you?

A. My heart just went out to their families and to the UVA locker room and football family, in general, because of the brothers that they lost, the lives that were taken too soon.

And it was due to gun violence, which we’re seeing at an alarming rate right now. It’s definitely happening in Philadelphia, but it’s also around the world. We just had the Nashville incident. We just look at how much guns are stripping away our kids. That’s just another example of why we need to do more to talk about gun violence and the impact that guns have and why they shouldn’t be as accessible. More so, why are they so accessible? That’s the better question.

That was the approach I was taking with the (cleats). I wanted to honor and recognize them for who they were and the men that they were. I heard so many great things about them, so I wanted to honor them in that moment, knowing that they won’t be able to live out and play in the league.

I wanted to represent UVA and honor them, but I also wanted to shed light on a serious matter that needs to be addressed.

Q. You’ve played with several former UVA players in the NFL, including Chris Long with the St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles. Like yourself, Chris used his platform to show a passion for activism and philanthropy. What was it like being his teammate?

A. It’s powerful to have a guy like Chris on your team. At UVA, he was a guy I looked up to and I admired. In St. Louis, we went through some rough times. He probably went through rougher times than me, but it was good to be able to reconnect for a special year in Philly and accomplish things not only on the field, but off the field.

Final Exercises 2024, Learn More
Final Exercises 2024, Learn More

Being involved in the Players Coalition, we were part of certain movements and brought awareness to so many different causes and serious issues that affected, honestly, not even Chris’ own community. And I think that says a lot about Chris. He sees no color. He just sees human beings for who they are, and you can only admire a guy like that, someone who’s willing to stand by you. He doesn’t necessarily understand your culture and understand your struggles, but he’s a good human being and just wants equality for all.

Q. You just finished your 11th season. What’s next for you in the NFL?

A. I know I still have more to give to the game. And I want to play again this year. I’m coming off one of my better years of my career in year 11, and that’s not easy to do, but I found a way to do it.

I’m really looking to land with a team who’s a contender and accepts me for who I am and that values my game.

Change Our Future will hold its third annual Sneaker Ball on June 22 in Philadelphia. For more information and ticket sales, see here.

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications