Credit: Dave Adamson / Unsplash

Robert Slechter is used to catching—and firing—bullet passes as a wide receiver and backup quarterback for the Chicago Police Enforcers football team.

CPD is one of 20 police and fire departments across the country to field a team in the National Public Safety Football League. Members of the league pride themselves on promoting a “positive self-image to the public” for cops and first responders, according to their website. So, like many contact sports leagues, the NPSFL decided to stay off the field this past spring and summer in the name of public health and safety. 

Others, such as Division 1 college football and the NFL, decided to play on, stockpiling thousands of COVID-19 cases with them; but even with its extra precaution, the NPSFL still may be the sports league that made the streets most unsafe this year. 

Since the onset of the pandemic, more than 1,200 CPD officers have tested positive for coronavirus. Officers have terrorized the streets maskless and even continue working after being exposed to the virus, according to a whistleblower. The majority of the Enforcers are sworn Chicago police officers, and the team has players from suburban police departments, the Cook County sheriff’s office, and the local office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. 

Of course, real bullets are fired and violent hits are thrown whether or not the Enforcers are playing on Morton Grove High School’s field. 

Just months before Laquan McDonald, another Black teenager—Roshad McIntosh—was shot and killed by the Enforcers’s team captain: Slechter.

McIntosh loved playing sports, particularly football and basketball, but the only one who still gets to run the field is his murderer—and Slechter isn’t alone.

Their linebacker is quoted saying “black humor,” like joking about dead bodies lining the streets of Chicago, is an acceptable way for cops to “ease the tension” of their jobs. Their tight end has shot at least three people. One of their offensive linemen has more use-of-force reports that have left civilians with injuries than 99.9 percent of all of the tens of thousands of CPD officers since 1988. 

As a team, the Enforcers’s misconduct as police officers has cost Chicago taxpayers more than half a million dollars since 2011, and they’ve been involved in more than 200 incidents where they’ve injured Chicagoans through use of force, according to databases maintained by the Chicago Reporter and the Invisible Institute. Settlement amounts may be much larger, too. Since the settlements database’s last update in 2017, at least $217.5 million has been paid out by the city in lawsuits and lawyer fees in cases involving Chicago police, according to the city’s law department. 

‘There is no justice here’

Slechter was cleared of any wrongdoing by Chicago’s Independent Police Review Authority in 2015 because police found a gun with McIntosh’s body, but the case was reopened by Chicago’s new police accountability office, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability, in 2017 after discrepancies between police and witness accounts began to rise. Witnesses claimed McIntosh was surrendering with his hands up at the time of the shooting.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed by McIntosh’s family remains in court, and earlier this year Chicago’s police superintendent recommended the firing of an officer who was on the scene with Slechter because he allegedly lied in his narrative statement about McIntosh’s death. The officer was set to face the police review board on December 1 but the date was pushed back two months due to COVID-19, and he remains on the force. 

Meanwhile, 44-year-old Slechter—dubbed the “ageless wonder”—is still catching touchdowns, gliding up the police ranks, and racking up raises, while McIntosh’s mother needs both antidepressants and sleep meds just to make it to the next day without succumbing to the pain from burying her child.

“For officers in the case to get caught lying to cover up the shooting and for Slechter to still be on the force, collect Chicago’s money, and then go out and play football on the weekends, while I’m barely making it day by day without sobbing and breaking down because I don’t have my son anymore—there is no justice here,” says Cynthia Lane, McIntosh’s mother.

“I never was raised to hate, but to be honest with you, I hate that officer. I hate him with a passion for taking my son away from me. I always ask God to forgive me for having that in my heart, but [Slechter] has made my life just so miserable,” she says, choking on her tears.

McIntosh was killed just two weeks before Lane was planning to help him enroll in a local junior college; he loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian. She hopes a settlement from the city will allow McIntosh’s son, Roshad Jr., the opportunity to go to college since his dad never did. 

Since McIntosh’s death, Lane has joined a “sorority” of mothers of children killed by police in Chicago. She wishes Chicago leaders would join in the fight, too. 

“Mayor Lightfoot, you ran on a platform of reform. You’re a Black woman and a mother, too, but it’s obvious you have no idea how this feels. Take action,” Lane says. 

A charitable spirit

The National Public Safety Football League, which is incorporated as a 501(c)(3) in New York, opened its doors in 1997, and the Enforcers joined in 2006. The team is recognized by CPD as an affiliated organization. Priding themselves on their charitable spirit, the Enforcers donate to four charities annually, but much of the money seems to be shuffled between other police groups. Three of the four recipients are Chicago police foundations, the other is the Mercy Home for Boys & Girls. The team claims to donate all amassed funds from their fundraisers and events, which totaled roughly $31,000 in 2018, according to the team’s last publicly available data. 

However, an additional nearly $100,000 floats through the team per year for things like practice facilities, equipment, and travel expenses.

According to the team’s website and past reporting, $20,000 in equipment is funded by donations from sponsors such as the Chicago Bears and Blackhawks, Chicago’s police union, and Aldermen Anthony Napolitano and Nick Sposato, but players have to fundraise and take on the expense of away game trips. The team’s transportation bill alone in 2018 was close to $10,000 more than they donated to charities. 

Representatives from the organization largely declined to speak on the record about financial returns or members’ misconduct, though board of directors member Sergeant Tim Kusinski said the team has continued its philanthropic goals despite the season being canceled. 

A numbers game

For scholars who study the intersections of policing, sports, and race, the league represents a look into the inner workings of one of the most highly scrutinized professions and a favorite American pastime.

Dr. Charles Ross, chair of African American Studies at the University of Mississippi and editor of the anthology Race and Sport: The Struggle for Equality On and Off the Field, says policing and post-World War II sports intersect, serving as a microcosm of society’s racial and class issues.

After players and fans led a boycott of the NFL in the 1960s to confront racism, the league issued a Band-Aid fix by allowing more Black players. The increase allowed them to quell dissent without having to address any of the persistent structural issues in the league, much like the diversity changes to policing in the last decade, Ross says.

“These arbitrary changes under the farce of equality often work to uphold the very institutions that cause harm,” says Ross.

Since former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality in 2016, conservative talking heads and police unions across the country have supported another boycott of the national league, but Ross says just like in the 60s, this has nothing to do with the sport and everything to do with power and race.

“We have to be transparent about the functions of police unions because it’s obvious that it’s not about the sport if they’re still playing it; there’s a tremendous amount of collusion and corruption that takes place, which always shows itself around Black trauma and the loss of Black lives,” Ross says. 

In 2016, former mayor Rahm Emanuel launched a hiring spree to expand CPD and bring on more Black officers, but since 2016 Black representation continues to decline and violence in the city has risen. The Enforcers football team is 56 percent white—making it roughly ten percent more white than the rest of CPD—and 20 percent Black, the same percentage represented on the larger force. 

In a New York Times essay, Northwestern professor kihana miraya ross explains why these markers of diversity don’t lead to fewer examples of “racist” police violence. She argues that regardless of an individual police officer’s race, violence is central to policing because “anti-Blackness is endemic to, and is central to how all of us make sense of the social, economic, historical and cultural dimensions of human life.”

‘The normalization of violence’

The public safety football league offers insight into the very nature of policing, according to Dr. Justin De Senso, assistant professor of English and African American studies at Penn State University.

“Critically, you can see a relationship between the normalization of violence in their jobs and officers gravitating to one of the most violent sports that we know. That sort of violence is seen as a way to build fellowship and craft a specific form of masculinity,” says De Senso, whose research focuses on Black police labor in the aftermath of World War II.

De Senso believes that officers’ gravitation to football can be explained by their gravitation to policing and what he calls a ”theater of trauma.” 

“The very nature of the way that cops understand policing and their longing for camaraderie blinds them to the very real flaws and faults of the profession,” De Senso says. “It makes sense to see these cops on the field; it’s another way to understand policing as highly gendered and violent—it’s authoritarian, territorial, and arguably pathological, in a sense of wanting to protect and survive living in a theater of trauma.” 

While victims of these athletes’ terror try to find any semblance of peace in the shadows of their violent, sometimes deadly, experiences, it looks like the team will continue enforcing both on the street and the field. 

“I don’t even know what [Slechter] looks like or sounds like—the man who killed my baby. But I do know that none of this is right. That I have to live with the pain while he gets to continue living his life like everything is normal,” Lane says.

After the police department survived without any substantial changes to its $1.7 billion budget as the city faced a $1.2 billion deficit, the team will rage on with its first game for the 2021 season scheduled to be played in April in Cleveland.    v