Among the three of them, they cover the career arc of an NFL player. Tight end Benjamin Watson has played 14 NFL seasons. A six-year veteran, defensive tackle Brandon Williams believes he’s just entering his prime. Outside linebacker Matthew Judon’s first two seasons with the Ravens hint at a long and productive career.
Seated this week in the front row of a conference room in a downtown Baltimore law office, nine floors above where the snow accumulated on city streets, the three men shared a common interest. They listened intently as educators, activists and civil rights attorneys engaged them in conversation about social issues facing the city that the players currently call home.
“It’s one thing for us to hear about the injustices that continue to occur, but in order to properly advocate and tell others, you have to listen and you have to learn,” Watson said. “That’s what today was about.”
Watson, Williams and Judon spent Wednesday at the offices of Downs Collins P.A., a Baltimore-based law firm with a history of handling civil rights cases. The event was part of the Listen & Learn Tour, an initiative of the Players Coalition, an independent organization that is investing time and resources into elevating and confronting social justice and racial equality issues around the country.
Attorneys Tiffani Collins and Jason Downs, both Baltimore natives, served as the hosts and moderators. Downs was part of the litigation team that represented the family of Freddie Gray, whose death in April 2015 while in police custody spurred widespread unrest in Baltimore.
As the players settled into their seats, the mounted television in the front of the room flashed the words: “Freddie Gray didn’t die in a vacuum.” What followed was an overview on policing in Baltimore and discussions centered on bail reform, education and the school-to-prison pipeline.
“I’m hoping that we build a relationship, but more importantly, that these players build a relationship with the Baltimore community,” Downs said. “These guys aren’t just talking the talk, they’re walking the walk. They came out in the middle of a snowstorm and they were attentive, they were asking questions, they offered ideas from the very beginning. They weren’t just taking the guided tour. They were offering their input and their insight is invaluable.”
Watson, a father of five, inquired about specific legislation affecting schools. Judon spoke of how he used to stay home from high school on certain days because he was frustrated with the education process. Williams shook his head as he heard stories about people stuck in jail for months because they couldn’t afford to post bail.
“The whole time I was sitting there, I was just kind of thinking,” Williams said. “We got all three phases of football sitting right in the room with all these great minds. It’s an amazing thing. I’m going to keep in touch with everyone here and just try and make a difference, try to better my community, better the place where my kids live. Everyone deserves a chance to get help.”
NFL players — and athletes in general — have been the subject of much scrutiny in recent months due for their protesting, which for some has including kneeling during the national anthem, of issues such as racial inequality and police brutality. Some Ravens officials believe that a dozen of their players kneeling before the team’s game in London last September contributed to attendance issues at M&T Bank Stadium during the season.
Meanwhile, members of the Players Coalition are hoping more attention gets paid to what athletes are doing away from the field. In January, league owners reportedly set aside $89 million as part of the “Let’s Listen Together” initiative to publicize players’ efforts for social and racial equality.
This past week, New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis lobbied lawmakers in Albany, N.Y., on bail reform. New England Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty went to the statehouse in Boston to discuss legislation regarding juvenile court. Former Ravens wide receiver Anquan Boldin and Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, the co-founders of the coalition, spoke at a Harvard summit on criminal justice reform.
At the Downs Collins’ office in Baltimore on Wednesday, the speakers included Caryn York, the first African-American female to lead the Job Opportunities Task Force; Douglas Colbert, who runs the Access to Justice Criminal Defense Clinic at the University of Maryland School of Law; Erek Barron, a Maryland delegate and former federal and state prosecutor; Dayvon Love, the director of a grassroots think tank that advances the public policy interests of African-Americans; Erika Strauss Chavarria, a Howard County teacher and member of the board of directors of the National Education Association; and Cristina Duncan Evans, a Baltimore educator and a member of the American Federation of Teachers.
The three NFL players were initially scheduled to sit in on bail hearings at Baltimore District Court, but the snowstorm forced court closures. Otherwise, the day went on as planned.
“It was important to be here,” said Williams. “It just allows us to listen in to the issues going on in our community. Benjamin said it best: we play for this city every Sunday. Our kids go to the same schools. Why not know about it? Why not learn more about it and try to make a difference and help others in the process?”
Watson, 37, has long been one of the NFL’s most socially conscious and active players. He’s written two books, one of them on race relations. Currently a free agent after playing two seasons with the Ravens, he’ll most likely continue his career elsewhere in 2018. Watson, though, felt it was important to be joined by players who figure to be in Baltimore long after he departs.
“Those guys have a heart for the city of Baltimore and they’re going to be here for a long time,” Watson said. “I joke with Judon, I say, ‘Hey man, you’re the second coming of [Terrell] Suggs, you’ll be here for 15 years. Get ready.’ What a tremendous voice they have in this city and what better way for people to listen to them than to see their actions, see that they really care about the community that they represent every Sunday.”
Williams, 29, signed a five-year deal with the Ravens last March. He and his young family live in Baltimore year round and he’s one of the most visible Ravens in the community. Judon, 25, said he’s motivated to get more involved.
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“It’s important because this stuff affects me,” Judon said. “I have a daughter. She’s 2 years old. I feel like I’m playing for those who don’t have a voice, like my daughter and other youth, people in poverty-stricken neighborhoods, people that don’t know that they have a choice or they can do something about their situation.”
After hearing about how many people go to jail after missing court dates, Judon suggested starting a phone app that reminds people of when they have to be in court. Williams mentioned a bus service that would pick up people with transportation issues and get them to court.
After Love, Chavarria and Evans discussed challenges that local schools are facing, Judon asked a pointed question: “How do we all change schooling and make it different than it was for the first man who went to school?”
“I could have been in Hawaii today, but I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I’m making these connections and building these bridges for things that can be put in place in the future,” Judon said. “I feel like I have a unique mind. Everybody does. But I have a lot of different ideas and my wheels get spinning really fast. I’m glad I can be in these types of situations to just forge my opinion.”
Colbert, who worked tirelessly for bail reform, praised the players for their “commitment to social justice.” Downs told the three players that “it’s not about your money. It’s about your time. We need you to donate your time.”
Afterward, the players stuck around, posed for a picture and exchanged contact information. They vowed that Wednesday was only the start of relationships that they hope to impact Baltimore.
“We all want to get involved in the city that we live in,” Watson said. “We want to leave our mark.”