In the nearly five months since a Black man named Jacob Blake was shot by police in Wisconsin, Broncos star safety Justin Simmons and a few other players have embraced what they see as a moral obligation to advocate — and even agitate — for social change.
“We canceled practice and we had a heart-to-heart,” said Justin Simmons, a star safety in his fifth season. “A few players from Wisconsin, Shelby Harris and Melvin Gordon, you could see how beat up those guys were.”
No one on the team knew Blake, but his story felt disturbingly familiar to many on the Broncos roster.
“And from that day on,” Simmons said, “we’ve really been focused on, OK, let’s figure out a way to where we can use our platform positively and find new ways to impact our communities.”
Since the fall, Simmons and a few other players have been holding “power hours” once a week, inviting guest speakers and any interested teammates to learn about social justice issues and discuss ways the players could find push for reforms on civil rights and criminal justice policy.
It’s a continuation of a journey in activism for the players that predates the Blake incident; many Broncos marched in Black Lives Matter protests in Denver last year, and some publicly advocated for the sweeping police reform bill the Colorado legislature passed amid those protests.
The leaders of the power hour group — Simmons, receiver Diontae Spencer, linebacker Alexander Johnson and cornerback De’Vante Bausby — recently put public pressure on Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to grant clemency to more prisoners as the coronavirus ravages the state prison system. The state reports 25 prisoners have died from COVID to date, while about 8,000 have tested positive at some point.
“We have the most imprisoned people in the world and we’re supposed to be a free state,” Johnson said in a new ad produced in partnership with the ACLU of Colorado, which airs through the end of Monday.
“Governor Polis, you have the clemency power to save lives and to define what redemption looks like in our state,” Bausby said in the ad.
Advocating for decarceration in this way has been empowering for Simmons, he said, as has the power hour in general. The NFL is run by mostly white conservative billionaires, and Simmons said he doesn’t believe that two years ago he’d be able to speak out as he does now.
“I think everyone can positively say the answer is no. We’ve seen what happened. The most glorified example is Colin Kaepernick,” he said, bringing up the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, who first took a knee to draw attention to police brutality in 2016 and hasn’t played in the NFL since 2017. “But also guys like Kenny Stills, Michael Thomas, Eric Reid — looking at what they’ve been fighting for the past couple of years, we’re just following in their footsteps, thinking, hey, we need to use our platform, too.”
Professional athletes in several sports have taken stands since the summer’s social unrest, which was sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain and others at the hands of police. Players in various sports, including football, have worn the names of people killed by police on their uniforms; the WNBA, NBA, MLB and MLS canceled some games; and star NFL players like quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson demanded the league condemn racism and apologize for anti-protest actions in recent years. Washington’s football team ditched its racist team name, and Cleveland’s baseball club will follow suit after the 2021 season.
More locally, Simmons was among more than 30 Broncos who last month voted to donate more than $250,000 of the team’s money to justice-oriented organizations, including the ACLU of Colorado and the Colorado Freedom Fund, a nonprofit that posts bond for indigent people.
“I have been really impressed,” said Elisabeth Epps, a lawyer and activist who founded the Colorado Freedom Fund. “Their intellectual curiosity about it has just been really exciting. They have not wanted to just have superficial bullet points handed to them, but they’ve asked for resources and reading and material and references.
“Sometimes you can worry about rocking the boat. I’m seeing them be comfortable in respectfully rocking the boat, and pushing and not accepting.”
Polis announced clemency for four people in Colorado’s prison system last month. But Epps and the Broncos players were offended by the gesture — “highly upset,” Simmons said — as they felt the governor could have done much more to reduce the prison population during a pandemic that’s spread through the facilities, without compromising public safety.
Simmons said the power hour group had met with Polis prior to the clemency announcement, and that the governor gave them the impression that he was primed to use his power to free more than four people.
“We felt like the point was made, and it seemed like he understood. It felt like it was subconsciously agreed upon,” Simmons said. “A couple days later, we saw the news. That was disheartening, and that’s why we’ve got to push.”
Polis spokesman Conor Cahill told The Post in a statement: “Governor Polis evaluates each clemency application individually. Each commutation application presents a difficult decision that the Governor considers very seriously, and he weighs individual circumstances and public safety. The Governor has met with members of the Broncos organization several times over the past few months. He applauds their community engagement and activism.”
The issue of clemency is trickier than people, including the Broncos players, may realize, said Stan Garnett, the former district attorney in Boulder who has advised Colorado governors on the issue.
“It can be very disrespectful to the victim, to the judge, to the defendant, the lawyers, to second-guess” what went into someone’s sentence, Garnett said. “They are very, very tough issues and governors are always worried about getting them wrong.”
Colorado’s prison population has declined dramatically during the pandemic, from about 20,000 to16,000 since February. But experts say it’s largely attributable to factors outside of the governor’s control, including a 2019 state law reclassifying certain drug offenses that happened to go into effect as the virus began to spread.
Polis is directly responsible for only four people in Colorado’s overall 2020 prison population decline, which makes him more aggressive on this front than prior governors, who mostly waited until the end of their terms to take any substantial clemency action.
But the Broncos players reject the notion that it would be hard for Polis to do more, and Simmons said the players invited him to meet with family members of incarcerated people who they believe deserve clemency.
Their advocacy in this area is just the beginning of something Simmons said will be long-lasting. Just as Kaepernick inspired Simmons and helped awaken the activist within him, Simmons said he hopes he and the power hour group will inspire their peers and teammates to find their voices.
“Football is temporary,” he said. “Being a black man in America is permanent. It’s important to keep things in perspective.”