Brendon Ayanbadejo, a linebacker and special teams ace on the Ravens’ 2012 Super Bowl championship team, joined Glenn Clark Radio June 3 to discuss the death of George Floyd, protests across the country, racial inequality and more.
Ayanbadejo, 43, was vocal about causes he supported during his time in Baltimore, particularly his advocacy for gay rights and same-sex marriage. He’s been active on social media following the death of Floyd, who was killed while in the custody of Minneapolis police May 25.
Ayanbadejo was signed out of UCLA by the Atlanta Falcons as an undrafted free agent in 1999. He played in the Canadian Football League and NFL Europe from 2000-2002 before establishing himself in the NFL. He totaled 254 tackles and 4.5 sacks with the Miami Dolphins, Chicago Bears and Ravens from 2003-2012.
This has been edited for clarity and content.
Glenn Clark: I don’t know any of the answers here. I want to be somebody who’s an ally, somebody who can help, but I understand I can’t possibly understand the experience of everyone in the black community and what they’re dealing with. For people in our audience who don’t understand what this moment is all about, can you try to explain to them what this is all about, what we’re dealing with in America?
Brendon Ayanbadejo: If you’re a person in America today and you’re scared, that’s a good thing. If you’ve been worried about your home, you’ve been worried about your family, you’ve been worried about your business, that’s a good thing because that’s the way that we’ve felt our entire lives. It’s the pain that we’ve gone through our entire lives. Sometimes I drive my car and if I’m speeding, I’m just enjoying the drive and I’m going 80 mph, the first thing that comes into mind is, “Maybe I should go back down to 65 mph because if I get pulled over, I don’t know what’s going to happen.” I shouldn’t feel that way. So you’re feeling a little bit of our pain, a little bit of our sorrow.
It’s not fair to say that every white person is racist. It’s not fair to say that every cop is a bad cop, but it’s just the reality of the life that we live being inside these bodies that we’re in and the feelings that we have and the disadvantages that we have that come along with being a black person in the America or in the world. I hope that we can all get through this together. Understand that this isn’t something that everybody contributed to. It’s the few that are terrorizing. It’s the people who are privileged and in positions of power – not all of them, but some of them, that have been terrorizing the ethnic community.
So I think it’s just a slice of what we’ve had to deal with, and this is no different. You’re seeing the disease manifest itself, but this is no different than last month, than last year, than five years ago, than 10 years ago, than 100 years ago. You’re just seeing the disease manifesting itself today with rioting, hopefully with peaceful protests, but no one was this upset when Tamir Rice was killed. No one was upset last week when Breonna Taylor was killed. No one was upset last month when other black people were killed at the hands of authorities. So now’s the time’s to act.
GC: Something that jumps out at me is the need to stay on topic. I think looking back, even those of us who might be well-intended in the white community allowed Colin Kaepernick’s protest to be spun into something that took it off-topic. Maybe you don’t love everything that’s going on right now, but we can’t allow this to be spun in other ways and we can’t let the conversation just end out of convenience or out of distraction. This has to be a pressing thing that we deal with.
BA: I think in every mission, there’s going to be provocateurs to steal your message and hijack your message, so who is that now? There’s bricks that have been dropped off in cities. Who’s dropping off those bricks and why? There’s looters. Colin Kaepernick, they said, “Oh, he’s disrespecting the flag and the military.” No, because we know that the land of the free and the home of the brave doesn’t apply to everybody. We’ve had these messages. We’ve done peaceful protests before, and they didn’t work and we’re still here.
We can’t let the message be hijacked. We have to address it, and if we don’t address it now then it’s going to happen again and when it happens the next time it’s going to be worse than it is now. There’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve been trying to let America know that there’s work that needs to be done. You look at the penitentiary system, and ethnic people are punished and incarcerated [at a] six times higher rate than white people who do the same crime that get a slap on the wrist. Whether it’s job opportunities, employment, education, you can’t disregard [any of that].
The Amy Cooper incident [in Central Park], I think that is what we’re fighting more than anything, more than the police brutality, because … it’s not nearly as often as what you saw Amy Cooper do. That is the evil that we’re fighting. That is privilege. That is what people don’t realize. That’s what we’re fighting more than anything, more than you see a black person die at the hands of police. That’s part of it and that’s what pushes people over the edge, but it’s the Amy Coopers that we’re fighting.
Kyle Ottenheimer: People have talked about the decentralized movement that we’re seeing all across the nation. How important, in general, is just the overall organization across the country between all of these protests trying to affect change and bring these changes that we need?
BA: I think for the first time in my life I’m not upset with the violence and all the ugliness that’s come on with the looting and the rioting. Do I want that to happen? No, I don’t want any of that stuff to happen. Are people hijacking the message? Some people are, and then are people out there that are doing the peaceful protesting which we’ve done before for a lot of different things in our country.
Sometimes they bring on change and sometimes they don’t, but when you don’t hear the voice of the people screaming, when you don’t hear George Floyd saying, “I can’t breathe,” calling for his mom, “You’re going to kill me,” you don’t hear him and then he goes. Then you can’t be upset that that’s what it sparked. Yeah, I want to stay on message. I want to do this peacefully, but if we’re not going to be heard peacefully then other things need to happen.
I’m going to go protest [June 3] in Hollywood, Calif. I’m going to bring my 14-year-old daughter. I plan on being peaceful. I plan on the crowd being peaceful. I never want to put my child in harm’s way, but this is a part of her heritage. This is a part of who she is. This is part of being in America, and it’s going out there and making your voice heard for the changes that you need for the greater good of society.
Note: Here’s what Ayanbadejo posted on Instagram after the protest:
GC: What we’re seeing right now, does it give you hope? Or are you worried that we will get distracted, particularly that white America will start screaming about the president again next week and forget what we’re really doing here and forget that there’s an actual movement afoot despite how significant this has been during the course of the past week?
BA: I see it like a bow and arrow, and … you have to pull the bow backward in order to project the arrow forward. The arrow is hope. The string on the bow is everything that we’re going through – all the violence, all the protesting, all the people that have been hurt in the past — and who are going to be hurt that we’re going to try to affect change so they don’t. But you have to pull it back as far as you can. I still think we’re pulling it back a little bit, but eventually that arrow of hope and change is going to project so far and I think that there is going to be change this time.
I’m an optimistic person as well, but I think that we’re realizing that, what’s the change that we need? We need incarceration reform. It’s systemic reform that we need to have. We need to have maybe a patrol that monitors what police are doing from a third-party source. Who’s going to jail? What crimes are they going to jail for? We need to have another public body that’s monitoring and eyeing that. And then there’s a whole bunch of other things – sensitivity training and different things that we can do, and people are realizing that silence is consent, so we need to speak up and make our voices heard.
With all the petitions and all the funds going and everything that’s moving right now, I think we still might be pulling that bow back, but I think we’re really going to go forward in this. It’s not something that’s going to be quiet. I don’t think it’s going to be quiet next week. Of course, this month is LGBTQ month. It’s pride month, the month of June. But it’s still the same fight – it’s the fight for equality for everybody. We’re going to take as much time as we need to for the black community, and we’re going to use that to help all communities and help everybody treated fairly and equally.
GC: I think there are white Americans who believe they are well-intended, and I’ll consider myself a part of that group, but still are asking, “What can we do? How can we help?” And we don’t know, because again, this is not our experience. It starts with being willing to admit our privilege, but what would you tell those of us who are trying to help? What do we need to know? What do we need to hear, and how do we help in this fight?
BA: I think that it’s going to take a tremendous amount of emotional intelligence. It’s going to take a tremendous amount of self awareness. There’s a video that’s viral. It’s probably one of my favorite videos that you watch on YouTube, that you watch on Instagram. It said, “If you grew up with two parents, step forward. If you never had to worry about a roof over your head, step forward. If you never had to worry about a meal, step forward. If you were on welfare, step backward. If you’ve ever been discriminated against, step backward.”
Once he made all these calls for people that are privileged and people that are not privileged, they said, “Look behind you.” And who did you see? You mostly saw minorities behind you. And he said, “Now we’re going to run a race.” We’re going to run this race. You might be running 40 yards [ahead]. Some of those people behind you might be running 50 yards [behind]. But whoever gets to the finish line is going to win.
I think that’s what you kind of have to think about. That takes self-awareness. That takes emotional intelligence. At the end of the day, you’ve just got to think to yourself, “What can I do to help and not be a part of the problem?” You have to have a tremendous amount of patience, but you have to be patient with yourself and take yourself through certain steps and think like, “Man, this person might’ve been suffering from that.”
And it goes through a myriad of different issues. It could be color, it could be mental health, it could be gender, it could be sexual orientation, it could be religion. Certain things that put people at a disadvantage in our society today … if you’re questioning it, then you’re doing the right thing. If you’re questioning, ‘How can I help? How can I make an impact? How can I make a difference?’ then that’s the first step to self-awareness and making a difference.
I think it’s very little things. It’s not, “Oh, go and protest. Sign this petition. Donate money here.” No, it starts inside yourself. It starts inside your home. It starts at your dinner table. What are you telling your kids? What are you telling your family? How are you teaching them about the history of America and the inequalities that we see and we face? I think there are very simple steps that are actually going to be a lot more beneficial than some of these bigger things that we think that we can do. It’s actually just inside of your own head, inside of your own home, having that awareness.
For more from Ayanbadejo, listen to the full interview here:
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens