Kiszla: Broncos’ Justin Simmons feels animosity between fans, players: “Isn’t that part of problem in America: That people view us as just entertainment to them?”

Hey, Broncos Country. Justin Simmons poses a tough question we need to discuss:

Do you love Simmons when he’s making a tackle, but hate it when a football player opens his mouth on matters close to his heart?

“Isn’t that part of the problem in America: That people view us as just entertainment to them?” Simmons said Friday, when I asked his reaction to fans irritated that a 26-year-old safety dares to speak out against racial injustice.

During a lousy year, drenched in the anxiety and rage fostered by the coronavirus and social discord, maybe it should be no surprise the cozy, old relationship between fans and their athletic heroes has been tested to the breaking point.

“My skin color should not determine whether I live or die,” Nuggets guard Jamal Murray said Saturday. In that single sentence, Murray stated why players from MLS to the WNBA and everywhere in between refused to take the field during the past week.

The hard-line stance that interrupted basketball, hockey and baseball games also offended fans that believe game time is their time, and maybe the one best time to tune out all the stress 2020 has heaped on us.

Broncos Country is full of passionate fans like Thomas Koller, who ardently follows all things Colorado sports, whether it’s a spat between Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Jeff Bridich or how CSU conducted its search for a new football coach. Koller is never hesitant to let me know his thoughts, firing off emails so frequently he makes me feel like a 21st century pen pal.

“Are you going to put up with these major-leagues holding fans hostage whenever they feel like it?” Koller asked me last week.

“Protesting they call it. More like deliberate misbehavior to plumb the depths of law and society. Don’t even mention the NBA. Commissioner Adam Silver is powerless. I say don’t pay ’em, offer their jobs to the willing and act before these sports are forgotten by the public. What I really want to say is: (Bleep) ’em all.”

Now that COVID-19 has taken spectators out of ballparks and arenas, will many care if they never go back? NBA television ratings that were in decline before a pandemic halted the season in March have slid more than 20 percent during this summer restart, to the point where the league’s concern was unmistakable during my recent visit to the bubble in Florida.

I admire the push for racial equality from local pro athletes from as varied backgrounds as Avs center Nazem Kadri, a Muslim of Lebanese descent, and Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, a white kid who grew up the son of a firefighter in the heart of Texas.

But I do think it’s fair to wonder: Is this tension between fans that just want to watch sports and athletes who feel compelled to be community activists a momentary blip in America’s love affair with sports? Or is this the fraying of a relationship that could end in irreconcilable differences?

Simmons has felt the tension. He told the story of feeling the ire of a loyal fan who turned sour when Simmons used his Broncos fame as a platform to speak on social issues.

“When I was wearing the jersey and I visited this fan’s 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,” Simmons said.

“Nah, you don’t get both sides. You don’t get one side without the other. When we’re outside playing (football), you’re looking at a guy who has 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 belittle athletes, there’s a root problem there with people idolizing celebrities and then also thinking they don’t have a voice.”

Here’s the growing disconnect, as best I understand it: There are fans who firmly believe a political football should never be allowed on any playing field, whether it takes the form of kneeling during the national anthem or painting “Black Lives Matter” on the basketball court. There are players who feel disrespected when told their athletic prowess is admired but their brainpower is dismissed.

“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,” Simmons said. “I’m hoping a lot of guys don’t pay any 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.”

Well, nobody asked me, but: The worst disease of 2020 is whatever’s killing our empathy.

Have sports, like America, become a place where if you’re not 100% in agreement with me, I must condemn you as being 100% against me?

The listening that fosters understanding can’t begin until the screaming stops.