SHELBY HARRIS: You know, when you play football, it's just, there's nothing like going out there in between those lines and the camaraderie with your teammates to go out there and try to win a football game. You know, it gets me out of bed every morning. You know, obviously I love my kids. I love my family. But man, football, just, it does something for me where I just, I love every day. Because once it's gone, it's gone. So you gotta enjoy this while it’s here.
This is Game Changer, a series from Death, Sex & Money about how the lives and livelihoods of American athletes have been upended this year.
I’m Anna Sale.
Shelby Harris has suffered from asthma for as long as he can remember.
SH: For my asthma, pretty much, I'm on a daily inhaler. I take that twice a day, morning and evening, and then that's just to manage the asthma. And so then whenever I feel that my lungs are getting tight and I really can't breathe, then I take my, the rescue inhaler, my Albuterol, and that's supposed to be the quick fix.
Shelby told me he uses both types of inhalers regularly. Especially while he’s in training for his job as a defensive lineman in the NFL.
SH: I have inhalers pretty much everywhere that I am. Like, I have one in my, one in my locker. I have one in my car. There's a couple of my house, so really wherever - like, just in case though. It's just that peace of mind, just knowing I have that. It makes me feel a lot better.
ANNA SALE: And when you first were hearing about COVID and about the risk factors for people with conditions like asthma, did you feel personally that you were more at risk than others?
SH: Yes. Uh, you know, I don't just have sports-induced asthma. I have, like, uh, like just regular bronchial asthma where it can pop up any time. So yeah, I've had multiple scary moments when it came to asthma and trying to breathe. So from everyone I've heard - talked to that had it, you know, they said their lungs just really, felt really affected by it. And so I was very nervous about getting it because it was more of, I already have like weak lungs, you could say, so this would have, um, you know, I feel like this really could have set me back.
After it was announced that the NFL would play its fall season, players were given the option to opt out. High risk players like Shelby were offered 350 thousand dollars for the season, if they decided not to play. Other players were offered 150 thousand.
66 players in total, most of them linemen, like Shelby, made the choice to sit this season out.
Shelby was not one of them.
ESPN MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL: “I think Shelby Harris got a hand on that!”
I talked with Shelby by phone from his home in the Denver suburbs the day after he made that field goal block…during the Broncos home opener against the Tennessee Titans. That crowd noise you’re hearing was piped in for the Monday Night Football broadcast on ESPN. Hardly any fans were in the stands that night.
SH: It was weird! But like the Broncos, they allowed our families to be there. So it was like 500 people there still, but it was just weird. You know, honestly, I thought it was funny because I was having conversations with the O-linemen the whole game.
AS: Like the offensive linemen, you're chit-chatting in a way that you can’t usually?
SH: Yeah. Usually you can't hear the person, but like yesterday you could hear everything that was going on.
AS: Did you get more into the shit talking? 'Cause you can hear each other so well?
SH: No, I'm not really a shit talker, to be honest. I'm more of just a conversationalist. Like, we just be having conversations out there.
AS: [Laughs] Wait, what's a conversation that you're having when a football play is about to start? What are you talking about?
SH: Like you're asking, like "Hey, which way are you going? Tell me, tell me, just tell me, tell me which way you're going."
AS: Oh okay. [Laughs]
SH: Just little stuff like that.
AS: How much time did it take you to think about - when you learned that there were still going to be NFL games this season, um, just talk me through, how did you all think about whether that was something you wanted to do?
SH: Well, honestly, for me, is, I'm getting older, you know. I'm in year seven. I'm, this my 20, I'm 29. So you gotta think I'm in the back end of my career, no matter how you really think about it. So every year - if you don't play, that's a year I miss out on of my career that I won't get back. So, I feel like if I opted out, you know, that could - for a lot of people that could be the end of your career because you know, it's just going to be young players that come in and perform and that's how you get your spot taken.
SH: Here's the thing is like, when it comes to football, once you're done with football, you're done with football. There is no like pick up leagues where you put the pads on or anything like that. It's not basketball, where you can just go play a pick up game, you know? So you got to get the most out of the time you play while you're playing it. And so for me, it was pretty easy. I was going to play this year.
AS: You're not ready for football to end in your life.
SH: No, I got a couple more years in me, in this old body.
AS: [Laughs] Um, was there anyone in your life who said, "Shelby, you've got asthma. Shelby, this is really high risk. I don't want to see you do this."
SH: Well, my wife didn't say she didn't want to see me do it. She was just like, you know, you have asthma, so if you get it, you get it. But then my thinking behind it, because I talked to my agent about it, it was really more of - how crappy would you feel if you opted out of the season and still got COVID anyway?
SH: You know what I mean though? 'Cause like, if you opt out of the season, there's no guarantee you're not getting COVID.
AS: Yeah. Yeah.
SH: So how dumb would you feel if you opted out and still got it?
Right now, NFL players and coaches are getting tested daily for COVID, except on game days. And, everyone’s wearing a tracker… so if someone tests positive anyone who’s been in close contact can also be isolated.
According to the NFL Players Association, 72 players tested positive for COVID at training camp this summer, starting when rookies arrived in mid-July. But since the start of the official season, only two players have tested positive, along with 10 other NFL staff members.
Shelby and his wife, who is pregnant, are hunkering down as much as possible with their three kids, ages 1, 5 and 13. But when Shelby’s on the field, social distancing is basically impossible and masks are off.
SH: It kind of brings back a little normalcy. Like it makes things feel kind of normal out there. Like every, like the world is back to normal, but we know it's not, but...
AS: You’re obviously, there’s contact when you’re playing. Are you like high-fiving in the way that you do most seasons? Are you touching kind of like outside of a play in the way that you would otherwise?
SH: Uh, yeah, I don't think that's really much of a difference. I really just think a lot of people really feel, you know, a lot more safe knowing that everyone's getting tested every day. You're gonna get those results like by the end of the day or the next day.
AS: If you got COVID this season, as far as your contract goes, would it be treated like an injury? How would it be treated as far as you're, how you're paid?
SH: So from what I'm, I've heard, like, obviously you get paid for it, but if you get it and you have a split in your contract, where if you go into injured reserve, you'd make less. For me, I don't have a split in my contract, so I would still get the same amount of money if I got COVID, or if I didn’t have it.
Shelby’s contract is worth 2.5 million dollars with the chance to earn another 750 thousand dollars in bonuses if his season goes well. But that’s a lot less than what Shelby was anticipated to be earning this year.
At the end of an impressive last season with the Broncos, Shelby was a free agent, expected to get picked up by another team and earn more than he ever had. At one point, he was projected to get a contract worth three to four times what he eventually landed.
Because just as free agency opened in March, COVID hit. Shelby ended up re-signing with the Broncos after not getting the offers he hoped to get from other teams.
SH: You can't go do visits with teams, you can't really go talk to teams, and I feel like that's important during free agency when they're trying to determine if you're going to be a good fit for them or not. So I think COVID definitely was a factor but you know, I'm not gonna sit here and wallow in my pity or whatever, I'm gonna sit there and I'm gonna get better and, and, you know, make them make, make them make a better decision next year.
AS: You know, after, after that field goal block last night I saw on Twitter, there was some chatter about maybe you weren't being paid enough for your value at this point. Did you, have you felt that at all with how that contract turned out?
SH: Oh yeah, definitely, 100%. But at the end of the day I'm not going to cry about it. It is what it is. You got to go out there and you got to earn everything you get. And so for me, every game I go out there, I'm going to make sure that, you know, I'm earning every dollar that I get and then hopefully set my family up for, for the future. But, you know, it definitely, you definitely, uh, you know, you can feel slighted if you want to, or not. But the way I decided to feel is I'm just going to keep putting the work in until I get what I truly deserve.
AS: When you, when you think about what you truly deserve, tell me what you mean more about that.
SH: Just, you know, the pay that I feel like I deserve. And it's the pay, but then also I feel like I want the respect around the league that I feel like I deserve. I've been putting in all this work and I've been putting up numbers and I've been helping my team win. And it's about time that the league recognized it.
SH: I've been in Denver, I've been planning on a one year contract the last four years, you know, so, you know, it's just a, you know, that's, that's the goal. That's the dream, you know, is to have, to get that big contract. And, you know, a lot of things have to go into it to get it, but you know, at the end of the day I'm doing my all to be the most complete player I can be.
AS: I'm curious, when you think about like, what you - you know, you're in a field where, um, your ability to earn is, you know, starts to diminish a lot after you turn 30. Um, when you think about kind of like what your, what these earnings are for right now, like what you're making money for? Like how much do you think of that as like supporting your family right now? And how much do you think about what's going to happen after your football career is over?
SH: Well, all the money I earn is really for my family. You know, I've got four kids. You gotta put four kids through college. You know, it's really just to make sure that my kids don't need to go through a lot of the financial troubles I had to go through growing up. You save as much as you can while you can, you know. I'm in year seven right now, the NFL average is three years. And so obviously I made it more than double what the NFL average is, and I've made a good amount of money while I've been in the league. And it's really just, you know, to set my family up.
Coming up… I talk more with Shelby about how this NFL season looks very different from the ones he’s experienced before.
SH: We're at a time right now where there is no fans. There is, there is no other distractions. We could truly make a difference right now and try to get things changed, get laws changed, things that can actually change systematic racism. We can’t let this die down.
This is Game Changer, a series from Death, Sex & Money. I’m Anna Sale.
Before the start of this season, the NFL Players Association made an agreement with the NFL that allowed players, for the first time, to display the names of people killed by police on the backs of their helmets.
Shelby Harris decided to wear the name Elijah McClain, for the 23-year-old Black man from Aurora, Colorado, who was walking down the street in 2019 when police stopped him and put him in a chokehold. Paramedics eventually sedated him with ketamine and he died six days later.
SH: Being in Colorado and, being right next to Aurora where there's all this police brutality and everything that's happening. It's just - the reason I chose his name is because he truly was an innocent kid who, who got roughed up by the police and didn't deserve anything that came to him. And we’re seeing this stuff happen more and more now. The police brutality is nothing now. It's just getting recorded now.
AS: What did you do during the National Anthem during the game last night?
SH: I took a knee.
AS: Uh huh. How long have you been taking a knee?
SH: Oh, I’ve taken it once before, when we played Buffalo three years ago.
AS: Why did you make that choice back then? What was it?
SH: We made a team decision that we were going to do it together, but that was when the President called us sons of bitches.
[CLIP OF PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now'? Out? He’s fired, he’s fired!]
These are President Trump’s words from a rally in Alabama in September 2017, in response to NFL players like Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem at games. In response, Shelby was among the 32 Broncos players who took a knee at their next game.
SH: It was a stand of, you know, like, we will not be silenced. And also bringing attention to police brutality and racial injustice in the country.
AS: So you did it three years ago, and then you, then you stopped and now you're doing it again. Did you, can you just tell me about why you, why you stopped for three years and then why you decided to last night?
SH: Well, you know, the NFL necessarily wasn't behind us the first time. And, you know, people were losing jobs over, uh - you know, they're claiming now that nothing's going to happen and they're going to support us throughout this. And they're claiming that they knew they were, that they were wrong back then. But back then the NFL didn't support us. And, and, you know, I see guys like Brandon Marshall and Demaryius Thomas who, who don't have a job right now. Guys who I definitely think should have a job right now. But, you know, the NFL definitely did not do a good job at supporting us and, or even listening to us the first time around. Everybody wanted, like nobody wanted to piss off Trump. And so all the owners completely took that out on us and, you know, and they nipped that in the bud pretty quick.
AS: After you realized that it was, um, there were, there could be professional consequences for you and financial consequences for your family if you knelt after that game, if you took a knee again, um, did you have mixed feelings about playing in the NFL?
SH: Man, it just makes me feel like the NFL didn't support us. They didn't have our back. We were just, kind of like, "Go out there and do what you're told, and then shut the hell up." You know, and, "We don't want to hear about your problems. We're paying you - " And the way people justify it is they pay us this money and they say, we're all spoiled millionaires. Like we didn't earn what we have. Like we just walked into the facility one day and said, "Pay us money and we're going to play football." But like, here's the thing, people are so quick to tell us to shut the hell up, then you've got CEOs that make $400 million a year, $50 million a year, but no one says anything to them when they pay their employees five dol - like $12 an hour. But then you have the nerve to tell NFL players, who are, they say, "Well do it in your own community. Use your own money. Use your own time." Well, we are. That's why - I hate that the most. And people that constantly say, "Oh, well, what are you doing in your community?" Do you really want me to run down this list? Because we are making a difference in our community. But the thing is like, you know, it's just - America has not been behind us really at all, for the most part, when it came to trying to make change. Every time that we try to make change they say, well, that's not the right way to do it. So it's just, um, you know, it's, it's, it's, it's difficult, you know, and obviously, you know, something I, I truly need to care about. Because here's my thing, I look at my kids and I realize they're gonna have to go through the same shit I did.
SH: And I look at my, I look at my youngest daughter. She's so innocent. Like all my other kids are bad as hell, but my youngest daughter is so innocent.
AS: [Laughs] She's not bad as hell yet. She'll grow into that when she's four.
SH: No. [Laughs] No, but I look at my youngest. I'm just like, she doesn't deserve this. Like none of my kids, they don't deserve this. And the fact that someone literally is going to treat them differently just based off the color of their skin. And, and it's just, you know, it's just, it's, it's heartbreaking. And so I'm doing this because I need to be able to look my kids in the eye when I get older and tell them I fought for them.
AS: Have you ever had a bad interaction with law enforcement, where you felt like you were treated in a way that wasn't appropriate or fair or - because you were a black man?
SH: Oh yes. 100%. 100%, 100%. When I was in high school, after football games we used to go to McDonald's. Um, 'cause I went to, I went to school in the suburbs of Milwaukee for football. And so after football games we'd go to McDonald's, whatever. And then I was with these two white girls and they drove - and we were going to someone's house, and so we were leaving McDonald's. The girl forgot to put her into her headlights on. So we get pulled over. And so we get pulled over and she's like, doesn't know where to stop on the - like where to pull over on the road. And then she finally pulls into this parking lot. The cop runs up. First, he pulls me out of the car and I hear him telling the girls, "Where's the drugs? Where are the drugs? We know they're his." Huh? What?
AS: Oh my goodness.
SH: What? Like what do you mean? I'm talking about pull out guns out, pull me out of the car. Patting me down. Threatening and threatening me saying, "If we find drugs it's a felony, we're going to take you to jail," and stuff. I'm like, I had nothing to do with, I'm literally just getting a ride. They tried to say I was hiding drugs in the back seat, like I was trying to hide drugs. And it was over nothing. There was no drugs, there was no nothing. And then like, oh well, and of course they're like "Oh, well, I'm sorry, have a good night" or whatever, but what you don't realize is that's immensely traumatizing to people. Even to this day, every time I get pulled over my heart stops and, my heart really just drops. And I get so nervous. I put my hands on the steering wheel and I'm like freaking out. And like, you just don't want to move. You don't want to move at all. And, but then you have people - and the worst part about it is if something did happen, then you have people say, "Well, he shouldn't have done this." I didn't know that the police were the judge, jury and executioner.
AS: Do you think you're going to kneel all season long?
SH: Um, you know, I don't know. I want to, you know, I want to figure out something that's actually going to like make a change and I want to talk, we want to talk to the team about it and really figure out if there's something that we can do, if it's kneeling, if it's something that can actually bring change to the causes that we want. You know, like actually bring change and, and, and bring the conversation up to people who claim they don't know what's going on. And then, so now there's no excuse. We’re trying to inform you.
AS: Mmhm. Having had the experience in 2017 of, of not feeling like the league was supporting you when you and your teammates were, were taking a knee in protest, um, for what was happening in our country, like has that affected your trust of the league to look out for you and your personal health during COVID?
SH: I guess you could think that, but my thinking behind it really was, it would look really bad if someone died in the NFL because of COVID. Like, because of, they didn't do enough. So I really, I have all the faith in the world. I feel like the league is going to do everything they can because they know it, they, it will not look good for them if something like that happens.
AS: Mmhm. It's, their self interest is more aligned with that right now than it was before. In 2017.
SH: Yeah. You know, at the end of the day, you know, the league is a business. And so you gotta think about what's going to affect your bottom line and what's not going to affect your bottom line. And if people get COVID, someone dies, you're going to have the shut the season down. You're gonna lose money. You know, and we're commodities. We make money for these owners. So. You gotta, think, it’s a money decision.
That’s Shelby Harris, a defensive lineman for the Denver Broncos. The Broncos are 0 and 2 this season… they play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this weekend.
Death, Sex & Money is a listener-supported production from WNYC Studios in New York. I’m usually based at the studios of the investigative podcast Reveal in Emeryville, California. Katie Bishop produced this episode. The rest of our team includes Anabel Bacon, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn.
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Shelby and his wife, Stephanie, have decided to keep their kids out of in-person school this year, to try to lessen the risk of Shelby getting COVID. Shelby’s wife is working from home too, and they have a toddler running around.
AS: And you're all in the same house. Most of the day. [Laughs]
SH: Yes. Yes.
AS: Except when you're practicing.
SH: That's what I'm saying. I need that. That's my getaway!
I’m Anna Sale, and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.