THE WHY: Phillip Lindsay watched video of a police officer killing George Floyd on the streets of Minneapolis. He winced as the cop leaned his knee into Floyd’s neck, and cried when the citizens filming the ordeal pleaded with several officers to help, to no avail. Lindsay could not believe what he was seeing, and yet was also not surprised. That’s America in 2020, more or less. Shocking incidents happen so often they are no longer shocking.
Lindsay tried to examine the murder from all angles: as a biracial person, a son, a father and someone who counted a cop among his best friends. Well, all angles except one—Lindsay did not consider the Floyd killing related to his career as a Broncos running back in any way. At least that’s what he thought at first.
To Lindsay, this wasn’t about politics. It wasn’t about supporting law-and-order or defunding the police. This was the longest-running matchup in the history of mankind: right versus wrong. This was about the “f---ed up” conversation he would need to have with his son one day. “No one should get to decide who gets to live or die,” he says. “Let the justice system handle it.”
As another season drew near, Lindsay continued to dig deeper. He learned from a friend that in certain cities jamming a knee on a suspect’s neck is perfectly legal. He began researching criminal justice reform. He found out that laws for officers, their safeguards and how they should go about their jobs vary widely from state to state. He saw the danger in qualified immunity, the blanket protection afforded to many officers should they use deadly force. He held several informal conversations with teammates, as demonstrations began across the country and continued for weeks. He marched. He chanted. He pleaded for more conversations, better understanding, all the usual things that athletes (and others) turn to when they want to help but don’t know the best way to begin.
And yet, as racial unrest and a pandemic dominated the spring and summer, he wondered a central question that’s also not unique to athletes: What could he, Phillip Lindsay, do to set in motion concrete action? To move beyond words and statements and names of Black people killed by police officers stitched onto masks and jerseys?
* * *
THE WHAT: When the Broncos convened in the spring for their first team meeting of the 2020 season, no one mentioned football. Playbooks were tucked away. Whiteboards remained wiped clean, absent the usual scribbles.
Instead, players and coaches spent hours debating, analyzing and learning about social justice, police brutality and the criminal justice system. Starters like safety Justin Simmons told their teammates about times they had been profiled by police officers, pulled over for no reason, while cops kept their hands on guns. Drew Lock shared his perspective as a young—and white—quarterback, asking what he could do to help. Broncos with connections to cops pointed out how difficult that job is. Broncos with incarcerated relatives unspooled the injustices built into the system. Black players told white teammates that even though they were well-known and well-compensated, that when they left the facility they were still Black, still fearful, still living in a country/world where racism exists.
“We were like every other team in the league, trying to figure out what to do,” says Curtis Modkins, Denver’s running backs coach. “I could see the pain in their eyes. The confusion. The need for tough conversations. Like them, I felt like we needed to do something.”
Mid-videoconference, Modkins began to speak. His running backs, like Lindsay, already knew the coach’s background: the bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, the master’s degree in liberal arts (with an emphasis in criminal justice), the deep understanding of the very issues America was confronting. Sometimes, Modkins told stories in position meetings about growing up in Texas and how, as a 10-year-old boy, he passed abandoned buildings and saw old-but-not-that-old signs for WHITES ONLY and COLORED bathrooms.
Other times, Modkins wound through the sequence of events that led him into coaching after a stint as a gang deterrent specialist in Fort Worth, where he had starred as a running back for TCU. In 1994, he helped create a pilot program, run through the Boys & Girls Club, hoping to lower local gang activity. People who worked that job were supposed to have seven years of experience; Modkins had just graduated. Still, he tried to build bridges in his community, incentivizing gang members, through rehabilitation programs and job opportunities, to leave that life behind. Then one morning, after stopping by an apartment complex to meet with gang leaders, he rounded the corner near his car and gunshots rang out nearby—from the same complex he had just left. The former college football player resolved to find a coaching gig instead.
Modkins had worked with police officers. He had seen the system’s impact on his father, who the coach says was addicted to drugs. He could line up many positive experiences with cops and several other incidents where he had been profiled, like the time he was pulled over while he left a Whataburger drive-thru in a new-ish truck. What laws could he have broken while ordering a burger and fries? But the officer called on three colleagues for backup, then searched the car, then let Modkins go without a ticket.
“There’s an important distinction to make,” Modkins says. “I have great friends and neighbors who are cops. This is not political. I am not anti-police. I want fairness, justice and equality.”
In fact, Modkins desires to help officers. He wants more funding, better training, higher salaries, a more competitive candidate pool. He wants accountability and integrity built in, too. “If you have 2,000 good cops and eight bad ones and the 2,000 don’t say anything, you ultimately have 2,008 bad cops,” he says.
As the Zoom call for that first team meeting ended, Modkins had already decided to put his college studies to use. He called the Broncos community service liaison and asked for a contact in the local ACLU office. Elisabeth Epps called back one minute after he sent an email.
How could the Broncos help push real action? She said, more or less, funny you should ask.
* * *
THE HOW: Epps began to describe SB20-217, a bill that was winding its way through the Colorado legislature. On the surface, much of its contents read like common sense put into practice. The bill called for accountability and integrity in law enforcement, while requiring body cameras, soliciting data on use of force, making that data public, banning tear gas and other chemical agents before issuing orders to disperse, and prohibiting chokeholds.
Modkins asked the players: Want to help, like really help? About 40 said yes, they did. Forty! The coach scheduled another call for the next day with the ACLU lawyers, who told the Broncos how they could contact their mayor, call local legislators and understand the current laws in the state and city where they lived and worked. They could also post on social media about the bill, harnessing their sizable platforms and the racial reckoning in 2020 America to procure votes. The ACLU folks sent out an email to the involved players that emphasized those points. Several, like linebacker Alexander Johnson, did take the time to make calls, to lobby, to ask their fans for help. They were Black players and white players, veterans and rookies, all pushing the bill in the same direction.
On July 1, Johnson settled in front of his laptop for most of nine hours, watching the entire session that legislators devoted to the bill and the final vote. Ultimately, the measure passed in the Colorado House of Representatives by a vote of 52-13. To Johnson, white America continued to stand more with Black America. He saw power in the protests but even more influence in actual legislation. “I feel like it was a big step but still a tiny step,” Johnson says. “The bill isn’t in effect yet. We still have a long way to go.”
“But,” he adds, “it’s like we won the opener.”
* * *
THE IMPACT: Modkins looks at the bill and the Broncos and sees a potential path forward for everyone in sports. His players didn’t just throw their names behind a cause; they asked questions, did research, made calls. “And they were able to just push the ball over the line a little bit,” he says.
The experience could be instructive—and snowball—Modkins says. His players found that they should know the local laws if they hope to see which ones need changing. Does their state allow qualified immunity? Does it hold legislators accountable? What are the hiring standards? They discovered they should know about their local politicians and how to reach them. “Our country is right here, right at that point,” Modkins says. “We’re seeing different viewpoints, looking for how to make change.”
Johnson, the linebacker, notes that five other states adopted the Colorado bill and two of them have already passed it. He points to an app he downloaded recently, 5 Calls, where users can input their zip code and receive info on different bills and the politicians involved in passing or vetoing them.
As Lindsay gauges his team’s impact, extrapolating, his voice grows more animated over the phone. What if all 32 teams worked together on other criminal justice reform bills? What if all 32 starting quarterbacks decided to help end qualified immunity? “It’s staggering,” Lindsay says. “You begin to see how change can happen fast. People want to see us play, and that’s the leverage. Who wants to watch a playoff game with no stars? We have the power, right now.
“Let’s use it.”
That’s the thing about platforms, he says. Especially now, they should be put to the best possible use. “We were all pretty shocked that a group of men who play football could help on something like this so fast,” Lindsay says. “People had tried to shun the bill. That s--- took us maybe three or four days [to help with]. That’s how much power any one team can have. Does it change the whole word? No. But it’s a start. It’s a blueprint.”