Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductees Bring Causes to Canton


Pro Football|Pro Football Hall of Fame Inductees Bring Causes to Canton

Champ Bailey delivered an impassioned plea Saturday for a discussion on race. Others have found more subtle ways to bring social justice and player health issues to the fore.

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CreditCreditDavid Richard/Associated Press

Ken Belson

On Saturday, Champ Bailey, who was one of eight former players and league executives inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame this weekend, devoted part of his nationally televised speech to urge white Americans to pay attention to the injustices black Americans face.

“We say this to all of our white friends: When we tell you about our fears, please listen,” Bailey said at the enshrinement ceremony in Canton, Ohio. “When we tell you we are afraid for our kids, please listen. And when we tell you there are many challenges we face because of the color of our skin, please listen. And please do not get caught up in how the message is delivered.”

Bailey’s speech came two days after another inductee, the former safety Ed Reed, was spotted at the Hall of Fame game wearing a shirt with the faces of nine black Americans, including Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Eric Garner, killed in recent years. During his induction speech, Reed mentioned Freddie Gray, the Baltimore man who died in police custody in 2015, by name.

Bailey’s speech was at least the fourth time in recent years that a Hall of Fame inductee or his family used the weekend to highlight a social justice or player health concern. Some of the messages have been subtle; Bailey’s words were the most direct appeal.

The N.F.L. in February settled the collusion case brought by Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, partly to try to put an end to the uncomfortable spectacle of players using the league’s vast platform to shine a light on their concerns about police brutality and social justice.

It is unclear how many players this season will continue kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, though Eric Reid, the Carolina Panthers safety who also accused the N.F.L. owners of colluding to keep him off the field, said last week that he plans to continue protesting this season. But players continue to speak out, including at one of the league’s biggest events, the induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

At last year’s so-called Gold Jacket ceremony, Randy Moss, the former wide receiver who was a member of the class of inductees, wore a necktie with the names of 12 black men and women killed by the police. Moss told ESPN that he subsequently received hundreds of pieces of hate mail.

The stewards of the Pro Football Hall of Fame try hard to ensure the festivities remain a celebration of football and the N.F.L. In 2015, Sydney Seau, the daughter of Junior Seau, was prevented from introducing her late father at the induction ceremony.

In 2012, Seau killed himself and was later found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits and found in more than 100 former N.F.L. players. His death and the disease have been a source of profound embarrassment to the league.

Sydney Seau insisted her speech only focused on her father’s life, not the details of his death. She was eventually allowed to be interviewed on the side of the stage.

Read Sydney Seau’s Speech

In recent years, the N.F.L. has tried to walk a fine line on social issues, trying to address players’ concerns at the same time it tries to keep politics away from the field as much as possible.

After fumbling for a way to stop players from kneeling during the national anthem, the league agreed to donate money to social justice causes of the players’ choosing. The N.F.L. also began allowing players to wear cleats customized with messages related to social causes, including the Black Lives Matter movement.

More on the N.F.L. and Social Justice

Ken Belson covers the N.F.L. He joined the Sports section in 2009 after stints in Metro and Business. From 2001 to 2004, he wrote about Japan in the Tokyo bureau.

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