ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On Wednesday evening, Broncos safety Justin Simmons logged onto Instagram.
In recent months, since a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for nearly nine minutes as he died, Simmons' feed and temporary Instagram Stories have featured posts regarding the need for accountability and racial equality. Simmons' call for reform was renewed this week as video surfaced of a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer shooting Jacob Blake, a Black man, several times in the back. Several members of the Broncos took to social media to express their outrage, Simmons among them.
And on Wednesday, Simmons exposed the type of vitriol he has received in response to standing up for the same principles that civil rights advocates have fought for over the course of decades. Simmons posted — on his Instagram Story and then on Twitter — a conversation with an individual who first thanked the Broncos' safety for visiting his stepfather at a VA hospital. In an ensuing comment, though, the person released a series of hateful sentences that concluded with "your opinion does not matter."
"I get people watch sports for just that, the enjoyment of the sport, but isn't that part of the problem in America that people view us just as entertainment to them?" Simmons said Friday. "That's part of what my post was about. For those that saw it, the fan, when I was wearing the jersey and I visited this fan's [step]dad in the hospital, I was a great guy. But as soon as I started speaking out on some things that pertained to my life, I'm worthless and I need to shut up and play the game."
As Simmons explained Friday — the 57th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington — it's impossible to separate Justin Simmons the football player from Justin Simmons, a biracial father, son and husband.
"You don't get one side without getting the other," Simmons said. "When we're outside playing, you're looking at a guy who has a family, has kids and has values, has all these things that are going on in his life. For someone to sit on their couch or wherever they are and to belittle athletes, there's a root problem there with people idolizing celebrities and then also thinking they don't have a voice to be able to speak on things that may pertain or are important. The idea of having fans think that celebrities can't speak on certain topics or they should just shut up, I don't understand where fans think that it's OK for them to also say, 'Oh, you guys need to be quiet.' What realm of credentials do you have that tell you that you can speak on something and we can't? A lot of guys here, regardless of what the public thinks, we have a lot of smart guys in our league. Around the world when you're talking about athletes, we can make a difference. I'm hoping a lot of guys don't pay attention to what fans say because, personally, I could not care less what they have to say about myself as long as they keep my family out of it. You can say all you want about me. I know my worth. I know my value in Christ. It's ridiculous that people think that way though."
Simmons' comments come a day after the Broncos joined nearly a dozen NFL teams in canceling football activities on Thursday, including their scheduled training-camp practice. Instead, the Broncos met as a team for more than two hours to discuss the impact of social injustice and police brutality and to search for a path forward.
"It was something that I was going to have during the day, but after I talked to a guy or two, I decided to start the day with [the team meeting]," Head Coach Vic Fangio said Friday. "It encompassed our whole day. We met fairly long in the morning, took a break, came back in the afternoon and guys had individual groups. … I was impressed with the players in there, where they were coming from. It's obviously a serious situation that we're dealing with. I think our players responded well. They have some good things planned that they can do, some programs they can help. We're going to help them any way we can."
Simmons said the team has requested to speak with Colorado Governor Jared Polis about the investigation into the killing of Aurora's Elijah McClain, and he also hopes to see a police reform bill that was passed in Colorado be adopted in other states.
"It's great that we had great conversation, but at this point conversation's only going to take you so far," Simmons said. "We need to see action. We need to see change. A lot of the change — some of the change that we're talking about is like we passed a bill here in Colorado and I just feel like not a lot of people were talking about the bill that was passed. We feel like that's a bill that should be in every single state — just things like that, talking about how we can just be a little bit more impactful because Colorado is a big sports state and there is no one that holds more power than the Denver Broncos and all those sports. We have a real chance here to take hold of something and use our platform and to run with it."
Simmons, seemingly, is more comfortable with using his platform to speak out for change than in 2017, when he was a second-year player and in his first year as a starter. In June, following the death of Floyd, Simmons attended a protest in his hometown of Stuart, Florida, and was handed a megaphone.
"When I went, I didn't expect to be called to talk, but we are a smaller town," Simmons said. "Obviously, myself playing in the NFL, they asked me to come up. I just kind of spoke from the heart. It was at that time I was kind of thinking to myself like, 'Man, my voice, I feel like my voice matters. People want to hear what I have to say about things like this.' It just was important to be able to speak out on it."
Asked to look back a few years, Simmons admitted he was "trying to find his way" and that it was a "scary moment" when he took a knee alongside his teammates in Buffalo that season. He said Friday that he wasn't "well-versed in the things they were taking a knee for" and "needed to educate myself a little bit more." Once he did the necessary research, he understood and supported the cause that former linebacker Brandon Marshall and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas were working to support.
"At this point now, to see that Brandon Marshall, Demaryius Thomas, [Texans WR] Kenny Stills, [NFL S] Eric Reid, [former 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick and so many guys around the league that were consistently taking a knee, to see that what they were doing was right, it was peaceful and that it was making a stand for something that they wanted to see changed — I feel like now it's like a no-brainer," Simmons said. "If you can't see it at this point, then you're choosing not to see it. There is clearly an issue in our country with police brutality and community. It has nothing to do with our flag. It has nothing to do with the soldiers that fight for our country and give us the freedom to be able to peacefully protest. It has nothing to do with actual police, but police brutality. That is the problem that a lot of people seem to still be at ends with."
As the Broncos head toward their 2020 season opener on Sept. 14, Simmons said he wants the team to be united in its form of protest in Week 1. Simmons also said he hoped the players would have the "full support" of the organization if they choose to take a knee during the national anthem.
Fangio said Friday that he thinks the team's players know the organization is "with them" as they look ahead toward creating change.
"We have their back as an organization," Fangio said. "We'll support them anyway we can."
Asked in late July how the organization would react to the players' decision to kneel or otherwise demonstrate, President/CEO Joe Ellis said the organization would respect the players' decision.
"We're going to work through that," Ellis said. "As I said, we respect our players and we respect what their values are and how strongly they feel about what's going on in this country. They have the right to decide what they want to do with respect to the anthem. Again, I keep overusing the word, but I'm going to respect that, and we're going to respect that as an organization."
Respect, empathy and equality seem to be at the forefront of what Simmons and his teammates hope to gain during their push against police brutality and other social injustices. Kenosha native Melvin Gordon III, who said it was "heartbreaking" to see the shooting of Blake and the ensuing violence in his hometown, simply wanted those who don't understand the Broncos' message to consider the pain they would feel in a similar situation.
"Just try to sit back and understand and look at it as if that was your brother, or your husband or your whatever being shot in the back, or being shot in the middle of the street, or having his throat stepped on," Gordon said. "Just try to look at it from that point and just try to understand and educate yourself. We understand that you might not be able to understand fully what it's like to be a Black man or Black woman in this world, but just try to educate yourself. Try to educate yourself the best way you can or find someone that can put it in a way that you can understand. That's the biggest thing. I don't think people try to really educate themselves on what we go through, and that's the problem."
Gordon was among those to speak during Thursday's team meeting, and Simmons said "the atmosphere changed" in the room as a choked-up Gordon tried to share his emotions. That pain Simmons saw his teammate carry frustrated him, but it also motivated him again to use his platform to make tangible, lasting change. Even if that change doesn't arrive overnight, Simmons and his teammates seem to recognize it's worth fighting for.
"I'm really hopeful, and the thing is, we know that it takes time," Simmons said. "This is not something that — even if we put the greatest heads in America in support of trying to fight for equality — it's not something that's just going to happen overnight. It's going to take time and it's going to take a lot of effort. My biggest goal is to leave something behind that the next generation can pick up and continue to move forward with and we're no longer taking steps backwards. That's the biggest thing. … I may not see the legitimate change, but hopefully my kids or my kid's kids can say, 'Man, I remember.' Not that we need credit for it, but I can just remember these issues were talked about when my dad was doing whatever. [We need to say], 'Here's what we need to do, here's the changes we need to make and here's the outlines they left behind for us that we can take ahold of and see if we can be the change.'
"That's something I look forward to that I hope happens down the road. Really seeing this change happen and that we don't take steps back, and as generations go on, we take steps forward in terms of equality for all."