NFL players, reform advocates kick off campaign on social justice

ALBANY, N.Y. -- What started when NFL players sparked a national discussion on racism and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem will continue this week as current and former players meet with lawmakers and community officials in major cities across the Northeast.

The campaign began Tuesday in New York's state capitol, where New Orleans Saints linebacker Demario Davis -- representing the Players Coalition -- joined criminal justice reform advocates to lobby legislators to change what they believe are race-based disparities in the bail system.

"We're using our platform and our space to do our part, to raise awareness [on] the social injustices that are going on in our country," said Davis, who signed last week with the Saints after playing for the New York Jets. "In New York, we're focusing on criminal reform. That's just a small piece in a big puzzle."

On Wednesday, former Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson will participate in a town hall-style session in Baltimore that will focus on police and community relations. On Thursday in Washington, D.C., Redskins cornerback Josh Norman will head a group that will visit a local school to discuss education and economic advancement. On Thursday in Boston, New England Patriots safety Devin McCourty and former Pats star linebacker Willie McGinest will meet with key legislators.

One of the topics of discussion will be a bill that would raise the age within the juvenile justice system.

The week concludes Friday in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and former NFL wideout Anquan Boldin, among others, will participate in a Harvard University summit that will include panel discussions on criminal justice reform and related issues plaguing communities.

In January, the NFL finalized plans to partner with players on social justice issues, announcing a "Let's Listen Together" initiative that will publicize the players' work on social and racial equality. Team owners earmarked $89 million over a seven-year period for the project.

A league official told ESPN's Adam Schefter that team owners will discuss the social justice platform at next week's annual league meetings in Orlando, Florida. The official also told Schefter that no vote on a policy change as it pertains to the national anthem is anticipated.

"The league has been instrumental in helping us bring light to our community and the issues that are going on in them," said Davis, who believes player protests will decrease in 2018 because of the league's support.

Davis, joined by members of the Bronx public defenders, spent Tuesday meeting with legislative aides on both sides of the aisle. The veteran linebacker, who granted behind-the-scenes access to ESPN, was articulate and passionate in the meetings. He asked questions and pressed the lawmakers' staff members when they appeared to be dodging specific issues. He challenged them to "move the needle" and enact change in their constituencies.

In between meetings, Davis visited the New York State Senate chamber, where he mingled with state senators and, yes, posed for some pictures.

"I think today was very effective," Davis said afterward.

Davis was joined by former NFL player Walter Beach, 83, who traveled from his home in Pennsylvania to support the cause. A former Cleveland Browns cornerback, Beach attended the famous Cleveland '67 summit with fellow activists Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar).

"Football is what he does," Beach said of Davis, "but it's not who he is."

Beach said he supported the national anthem protests last fall, disagreeing with those who say players dishonored the flag by kneeling. He said the kneeling was meant to be symbolic, but "that got lost, like everything else that makes sense in this country has been lost."

Claiming he was blackballed by the NFL because of his activism -- he successfully sued the league for his pension -- Beach said he can relate to Colin Kaepernick. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback was out of football last season and remains unsigned after being credited with starting the kneeling protest during the national anthem in a 2016 preseason game.

Beach believes it is Kaepernick's polarizing beliefs that have kept him out of the league.

"Of course it is," Beach said. "Anyone who knows anything about football couldn't begin to suggest he shouldn't be one of the 32 [starting] quarterbacks. "If you say there are 32 guys better than him, you don't know anything about football."