“The first thing people see when they look at me is not a Pro Football Hall of Famer or a husband or a father,” Bailey told the audience. “They view me first as a black man. So, on behalf of all the black men that I mentioned tonight, and many more out there who’ve had the same experiences that I’ve had in my lifetime, we say this to all of our white friends: When we tell you about our fears, please listen. When we tell you we’re afraid for our kids, please listen. When we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skin, please listen.”
That was more than 10 months ago. In late May, the issue erupted nationally after a video showing Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes 46 seconds went viral. Floyd was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
For Bailey, this felt like yet another reminder of how he, as a black man, is viewed by police in America.
“When I see something going on, especially if it’s a black person, I’m probably not going to be inclined to call the cops until I really figure out what’s going on,” Bailey said. “Because I don’t know what’s going to happen to that person. They could be innocent and now it ruins their life and ruins their family’s life because they get caught up in the system. There are so many levels to the oppression that is just unbelievable to talk about. And to think you’re going to solve the issues in a short amount of time? So many things have to change.”
Bailey grew up in Folkston, Ga., a small town of 2,500. When he was a child, Bailey said his father showed him the businesses black people were once prohibited from entering. When Bailey was an adolescent in the 1980s, there were certain restaurants his family avoided since they didn’t feel welcome. In other stores, Bailey recalled receiving “the look.”
“Those little things when you walk in the store, ‘Oh, is he going to steal something?’ Those things happen,” Bailey said. “Even as an adult you still get those looks.”
During his pro football career with the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos, Bailey said he was probably too distracted by his job to speak out on this topic. Looking back, he wishes he would have used his platform more. He’s proud of the way athletes have responded when it comes to social justice issues.
Now that he’s retired, Bailey doesn’t want to remain silent anymore. In a recent interview, he offered his thoughts on racial injustice, the NFL’s response and why he doesn’t think significant change will occur during his lifetime. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
What was the inspiration for the message you gave at the end of your speech?
I think experience obviously plays a role. I grew up in south Georgia. That level of oppression was always visible to me growing up, having that in the back of my mind and obviously knowing it still exists today. Speaking a year ago, I was echoing the same words of guys before me and guys who stood next to me. It’s nothing new.
It’s like, why is it that when black people speak and we say things are bad it takes years for people to listen and understand that? Why does it always take so long for people to pay attention and believe us? We have to show proof after proof after proof. People are dead because they don’t listen.
What tangible change would you like to see occur? How does something of this magnitude change?
I have to be honest with you. I’m not very optimistic that there will be dramatic change in my lifetime. I just don’t see it. My parents dealt with it all through their adulthood, my grandparents and their parents. I’m still dealing with it halfway through my life. I don’t expect anything to change before I close my eyes and go six feet under.
But for my four boys, I expect things to get a little different for them. And then a little bit better for my grandkids. Now, what needs to happen? They need to be given opportunities to be treated equally. What does that look like? It’s all economics. Why did we come here in the first place? It was an economic plague. They needed free labor. They went and kidnapped some slaves from Africa and brought them here.
Here we are 400 years later trying to be equal in a society that was never meant for us. It was never meant for us to be equal, so that fight continues. It really starts with economics. Give us a good education, give us good health care, give us all these little things we don’t have right now. Every time something bad happens, who is always falling on the sword first? It’s black people. Covid comes, who are the ones dying the most? Black people. Look at the prisons. It’s full of black people. Families destroyed.
There is a lot to make up. It would take trillions and trillions of dollars in investments in the black community specifically. It has to be intentional. ... We’ve been so patient. My God, can we be any more patient?
Reparations are the only answer. And it’s not just a big fat check. We have to be educated to spend that check. We have to be healthy enough to spend that check and to make the right decisions, dealing with generational wealth. I mean, Black Wall Street was not an accident. It’s so deep. Like I said, I don’t expect it to change in my lifetime.
Is it striking to you that it took four years since Colin Kaepernick began protesting for people to realize the intention of his protest and get away from the notion he was protesting the flag, anthem and military?
They don’t usually listen until years later. Roger Goodell was a prime example of it. Don’t get me wrong; you can tell which owners have been very quiet lately, right? It’s not a universal feeling across the league about protesting. It’s almost like, “What’s the best PR move?” That’s what sucks for me and for all these guys and for every black person.
They still don’t get it. Even when Roger Goodell made his apology statement, he didn’t mention Kaepernick. That’s the one who started it all. Let’s go back to the root of it and apologize to that man. I think that apology to him would be an apology to every black American, or every football fan, or every player in the league.
It really goes back to sitting back, listening and educating yourself. There’s a lot to learn about the level of oppression you’re taking part of. A lot of people unconsciously do it. I think he does, allowing the owners to talk the way they do. We need people to start standing up to racism, plain and simple.
Do you think that if the world wasn’t on pause right now with the pandemic that not as much as attention would be brought to this?
Oh, without a doubt. The pandemic plays a huge role. You can have things recorded, but people need to be home or still to watch it. That created the perfect storm to really create a movement here. I’m impressed so far with the momentum because it seems like it’s not slowing down.
I hear a lot of basketball players talking about, “We don’t want to stop the momentum so I don’t want to play this year.” I actually think the opposite. They need their money. There are a lot of guys — they make a lot, but compared to the rest of the guys in the league, they don’t. So those guys need their money. Why? So they can feed their families. Their families are mostly minorities. Plus, basketball also gets you microphones in your face. Almost every day someone is doing an interview. That’s your platform. Use it.
I think that it would be counterproductive for them not to play. Even football. I hope we play, just so these guys can get in front of a camera. Yeah, there will be football talk, but how dare a coach tell me not to talk about social issues? I think we got to get sports back so we can continue this momentum. I really do believe that.
Now, is it safe for them? That’s a whole other question. Only if it’s safe.