How Georgia Tech great Derrick Morgan seeks to be a social-justice solution

Former Georgia Tech All-American and 2009 ACC defensive player of the year Derrick Morgan acknowledges fans at halftime of Tech's game against North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium Oct. 5, 2019. Morgan was inducted into Tech's sports hall of fame the previous night. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)
Former Georgia Tech All-American and 2009 ACC defensive player of the year Derrick Morgan acknowledges fans at halftime of Tech's game against North Carolina at Bobby Dodd Stadium Oct. 5, 2019. Morgan was inducted into Tech's sports hall of fame the previous night. (Danny Karnik/Georgia Tech Athletics)

Watching video of destructive riots in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Derrick Morgan senses desperation. The former Georgia Tech All-American perceives the underlying currents – millions of people out of work and without their financial means, confined to their homes and then witnessing Floyd’s death at the knee of a police officer – forming a powerful torrent.

“(Watching Floyd’s death) does something to you as a human, and if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with you,” Morgan told the AJC. “I just feel like it’s a perfect storm for all these different ingredients that are coming to the surface, and you see it manifesting in outbursts and outrage and anger and destruction. So I get it. I completely understand.”

Retired from the NFL in July 2019 after a nine-year career at the age of 30, Morgan has positioned himself to be an agent of change, even hope, at a time of upheaval. In his retirement, Morgan launched an investment company dedicated to putting money into projects that are aimed at both social or environmental impact and financial return, an investment strategy known as impact investing.

The financial catastrophe caused by COVID-19 and the unavoidable expressions of anger and frustration have made clear to Morgan that he is on the right path in his post-football life.

“Not to say that it’s a silver bullet, but I lean into that economic lane, and that’s where I fall into in terms of what my response is and how I can be a part of the solution,” he said.

A restless spirit

It was perhaps five years ago, during a string of deaths of black men at the hands of police – Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott and others – that Morgan re-evaluated how he was using his wealth and influence to serve the disenfranchised.

Morgan was giving money to charity and was on his way to holding his own football camps, one of them also emphasizing science and technology.

But he said he felt what he called “this restlessness that I had in my spirit” because he felt that his actions – following what he called the “playbook” for professional athletes’ charitable endeavors – were creating marginal change and not addressing root issues.

Morgan believed that the issues that he saw plaguing communities of color – “mass incarceration, police brutality, income inequality, the whole economic landscape of inequality,” he said – could be addressed on a larger scale through investments that have the potential to improve communities and their economic conditions.

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Morgan describes himself as someone who won’t do anything unless he’s clear about why he’s doing it. The desire to have a personal legacy beyond football, the realization that his football career was finite and his growing awareness of the societal hurdles placed in front of the disadvantaged gave him his inspiration – his “why,” as he called it – to change his approach toward how he put his financial capital to work.

“My why was, how can I effect positive change and be a part of the social-justice solution?” Morgan said.

Morgan’s company – Kngdm (pronounced “Kingdom”) Impact Fund – has aims of investing in projects such as affordable housing and companies in distressed communities. The company has targeted four markets – Coatesville, Pa. (where Morgan grew up), Nashville, Tenn. (where Morgan played for the Titans), Atlanta (where Morgan attended college) and Austin, Texas (where his business partner, Kendrick Whittington, is based).

He has begun development of a sports complex and event center in Coatesville. In Atlanta, he is hopeful to dig into a multi-family affordable housing project in the Westside.

“We’re trying to get to the Westside and get a conglomerate of people who have influence, who care about that part of town and to really do some meaningful projects in that area of Atlanta,” Morgan said.

A central element of his vision is collaboration with other athletes and other people of influence that grew up in communities such as the ones that Morgan aims to lift up. They can offer not only empathy, but also a voice to a broader audience. Among possible partners are former NFL linebacker Brian Orakpo and Carolina Panthers offensive tackle Russell Okung.

On a mission

Initially, Morgan’s personal reaction to the death of Floyd was shock, anger, disbelief and disgust. But, having repeatedly witnessed similar instances of police brutality, he recognized the senseless pattern.

“The micro incident is tragic, you can’t believe it,” he said. “But when you look at the macro, it’s not surprising.”

Personally, Morgan hasn’t had to look hard for racist behavior. He said he was taunted with racist epithets from the time he was 8 or 9. Being a graduate of a prestigious university, the holder of an executive MBA and having earned millions of dollars in the NFL has hardly insulated Morgan more recently.

With little emotion, he said he has been called the n-word in traffic.

“Plenty of times,” he said. “My wife has, as well. My wife got called (a racist, sexist epithet) three months ago, in traffic. So either we’re just real bad drivers, or there’s a lot of hate.”

He spoke with some bewilderment of the existence of a statue of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Forrest that is visible from I-65 south of downtown Nashville on privately owned property.

“It’s more of the history down here, but racism, it’s a disease that affects all parts of the country,” he said.

For those seeking to combat the systemic racism that the death of Floyd and the protests and riots have brought to the forefront of the nation’s conscience, Morgan suggested a series of actions for people seeking to create change from volunteering to hiring minorities to buying from black-owned businesses to becoming more educated on the matter.

“It’s just a lot of different ways to be part of the solution,” he said. “It doesn’t look like one thing.”

Morgan, a man of Christian faith, moves forward with his one thing, struck again with the potency of injustice.

“That doesn’t mean you deter from the mission, but it’s a reminder, and it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, we’re in this,’” he said. “God has us here for a reason. We should continue on with the mission.”

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