Ray Lewis was a sophomore in high school when four Los Angeles Police Department officers arrested and violently beat Rodney King, an unarmed black man. Lewis remembers seeing footage of the March 1991 incident and asking his mother why black people were treated differently.
“Son, life ain’t fair,” the former Ravens star recalled her telling him. “And people see life differently.”
“Terrible,” Lewis said Thursday of the police brutality. In 2015, Freddie Gray died from a spinal injury suffered in a Baltimore police van, sparking protests in the city where Lewis spent his entire NFL career. But the May 25 death of George Floyd, Lewis said, “has bothered me from a different place.”
In his first extensive comments since civil unrest led protesters in Baltimore and across the nation to rally against police brutality, Lewis told University of Maryland, Baltimore interim president Bruce Jarrell in an emotional video conference call that “when you see all the things that’s going on around the world, this is probably the most challenging thing we’ve ever seen.”
The issue is intensely personal for Lewis, as it is for many black NFL players, both active and retired. He said he spoke earlier this week with the family of Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody after former Minneapolis officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. (Chauvin now faces second-degree murder charges.) “They’re not alone” in their pain and anger, Lewis said he told the family.
“My only real question is, when does black lives matter?” Lewis said. “It’s time for us to matter, because we’re relevant, because we’re human beings and the color of our skin does not define who we are.”
As the United States reckons with centuries of violence against black communities and systemic racism, players in the predominantly black NFL have been especially sensitive to the injustices now laid bare across the country.
In Baltimore, where Lewis was criticized three years ago for dropping to his knees alongside Ravens players during the national anthem before a game in London, the unrest has inspired calls for change, harsh rebukes and pledges of solidarity from Ravens past and present, from names big and small, from players black and white.
Lewis, a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker who remains active in the Baltimore area, did not hold back Thursday. He said Floyd’s death has kept him up at night. When one of his sons asked him to make sense of it all, Lewis said it was time to pray.
“The cops are killing black men like it’s a hobby,” he said in the UMB conference call. “There’s no frickin’ excuses. You can’t do that, because you break us. You physically break us. And that’s why I haven’t spoken, because it’s painful. It’s not easy. It’s not easy going through something in life and figuring out how to make it out.”
His voice quavering, Lewis stopped to wipe a tear from his eye. “It’s not easy making it in life when you’re only looked at a certain way because of the color of your skin.”
Outrage has driven others to speak out. On Wednesday, New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, in an interview with Yahoo Finance, was asked about the possibility of players kneeling again during the national anthem, as then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had in 2016 to protest police brutality against minorities. Brees said he will “never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America or our country.”
In a since-deleted Instagram post, former Ravens safety Ed Reed, a Louisiana native, said Wednesday night that “I see Drew Brees trying to do his part in keeping black folk down.” He called him “a straight sucker, man. You’re a sucker for that, bro. Why you think all these young people are out here protesting? Why you think they’re out here protesting?”
Ravens running back Mark Ingram II, a longtime standout with the Saints, echoed a message from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers in a tweet Wednesday night: “ ‘It has NEVER been about an anthem or a flag. Not then. Not now.’ THANK YOU for speaking truth for the oppresssed [sic] and unheard,” Ingram wrote. “THANK YOU for understanding the WHY.”
Brees later apologized for his comments, saying he “completely missed the mark” and that it “breaks my heart to know the pain I have caused.”
With no Ravens coaches or front office officials made available to comment this week, the organization has let its actions speak for itself. On Monday, the Ravens and owner Steve Bisciotti’s foundation committed to donate $1 million to support social justice reform in Baltimore. “I am sickened, disheartened and shaken by the acts of racism that continue to overwhelm our society,” Bisciotti said in a statement, which did not mention police brutality.
On Thursday, the Ravens held a moment of silence for Floyd during a team meeting, and players said they’ve addressed his death with coaches this week.
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Players up and down the team’s depth chart have embraced the protests as an opportunity to raise awareness of societal ills. Quarterback Lamar Jackson shared an image of Floyd in a No. 52 Ravens jersey with the hashtag “ripgeorgefloyd.” New Ravens guard D.J. Fluker called for reform in law enforcement: “We need minorities to unite and help rewrite the training book.”
Outside linebacker John Daka, an undrafted rookie who grew up in Maryland, and second-year cornerback Iman Marshall, a California native, both participated in local peaceful protests. Left tackle Ronnie Stanley said he would find a way to effect “significant change” in Baltimore.
“Specifically to the injustices/inequality that happens everyday just like in so many other cities across the country,” he tweeted. “As well as building the black communities that have been fighting up.”
White teammates have stood up as well. Center Matt Skura reaffirmed his support of teammates seeking “change and justice because they are my brothers who I know would do the same for me.” Guard Ben Powers, with his heart “heavy” after seeing the “injustice against my black brothers and sisters,” called this a time for action and change. Many other players took part in “Blackout Tuesday,” posting black squares on social media in a show of solidarity.
Former Maryland and Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith, one of the NFL’s most outspoken players during his eight-year playing career, participated in protests Monday night in Baltimore. He said in a telephone interview that players now have a responsibility not unlike the officers under fire across the country. “To whom much is given,” he said, “much is expected.”
“I tell people all the time: ‘I play ball. When I had my helmet on, I was covered up. But when I took my pads off and I walked away from that field, I was still a black man in America.’ ” he said. “There are things that impact people, and I’m not immune from it just because I’ve played in the NFL. So it’s important to stand up and be a voice for the voiceless, because as an athlete, you have that voice, or you have that platform, and people may listen to you.
“That’s why I don’t mind sharing my stories, which are traumatizing in a way — so people can learn from them.”