Shaun Gayle insists the fight for racial justice must not lose momentum as the world strives towards a ‘new norm’ a year on from the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Former police officer Derek Chauvin was recently convicted of second-degree murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after kneeling on the neck of Floyd for over nine minutes while restraining the unarmed black man in May 2020.
Witness footage of the incident sparked global outrage as NFL players spoke out in their numbers and used their platforms to demand social reform by partaking in peaceful protests and even calling on the league to advance its support for equality and equity.
While Chauvin’s conviction represents momentary justice, Gayle says the work is far from done.
“In this particular situation, getting justice for George Floyd, yes that was successful, but this is not the end of it. This is basically a pursuit of a new norm,” the former Super Bowl-winning Chicago Bears defensive back told Sky Sports.
“The people from communities that are affected by police brutality and inequality and things of that nature, they’re going to make it clear to everyone that complacency and indifference is the enemy and that this has to continue in order to make sure people of colour are safe and that policing has changed and that we really take a strong look and do all we can to eradicate systemic racism.
“The biggest change is what we’ve all been able to witness and that is an actual connection to what’s happening in the streets. The protests were designed to bring attention and when that happened, based on the young woman’s filming of the murder of George Floyd, the world had a chance to see what many people of colour have experienced and what they’ve already seen.
“To shed light on that, that in itself was a huge step and to promote the idea that we all have to be responsible and accountable to do what we can to expose this, that is always going to be one step closer to resolution.
“Across the board when you think about it, especially when I’m back home in the States, the George Floyd story has happened thousands of times but without somebody filming it, without it going to court, without individuals filming it, without these crimes being held accountable and the fact we were able to get that done and the world saw that is a big step.”
Shaun Gayle on the murder of George Floyd one year later
The death of Floyd notably turned the microscope towards the league’s own approach to tackling the issue of discrimination and social justice as the NFL came under criticism for its treatment of Colin Kaepernick after he took a knee during the pre-game national anthem in protests against police brutality back in 2016.
A host of high-profile names united in a video calling on the league to “condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people” following a weak initial statement in the wake of Floyd’s murder.
The NFL subsequently admitted it had been wrong for not listening to players fighting for equality and encouraged them to peacefully protest, stating that ‘without black players there would be no National Football League’.
“Anytime you have an organisation that powerful, a corporation that basically owns Sundays in the fall and you employ a tremendous amount of high visibility individuals, there are ways to use that to push forward and that also includes challenging the different corporations that support causes that are counter to equality and justice,” said Gayle.
“There are things that can be done and I’m certain there are players that have formed these coalitions so to speak that are in discussions to try and push forward these things and I wish them the best, it’s just that the enemy is complacency.
“We have to stay focused and make sure we keep our eye on these situations and do all we can to change them.”
The 2020 season saw the phrases “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” printed at end zones, while players were permitted to honour victims of systemic racism by having their name or initials on the back of their helmets. Plans were also announced to schedule meetings between state and local elected officials and leaders of local law enforcement in an attempt to enhance community relations.
Having witnessed the impact of players challenging the league, Gayle believes a similar approach could be pivotal to increasing coaching diversity.
As it stands there are currently just two black head coaches in the NFL in Brian Flores of the Miami Dolphins and Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one Hispanic head coach in the Washington Football Team’s Ron Rivera and the league’s first ever Muslim head coach in Robert Saleh of the New York Jets.
“I wish there was a way they could force teams to do things and they can’t because now we’re crossing over into different types of laws and the fact you can’t force an organisation to select certain individuals, you can only incentivise it and I get that,” said Gayle.
“You look in the Championship games last year and we had four black coordinators and none of them got a job as a head coach. We keep talking about this and as long as it’s just talk it’s not going to change.”
The league sought to further enhance opportunities last year by approving a proposal to incentivise the development of minority coaches and executives, introducing draft picks as a reward for clubs if another team appoints a member of their staff to a higher role.
The Jets had marked one of seven head-coaching vacancies on the back of the 2020 season, none of which were filled by the three black candidates present at the Super Bowl in Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich and Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles.
“I think the players have to start to speak up,” said Gayle. “When the players start to speak up and that affects things like ticket sales, appearances on having games aired, if a quarterback is looking to change teams and makes it vocal he wants a different makeup in the coaching staff as to how it reflects the makeup in the NFL and making sure we have representation for black head coaches, these type of things will make changes, these types of things will really be the game-changer.
“I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen or when it will happen but that’s one thing I can say off the top of my head that would be really interesting.
“It’s up to the players to bring light to this and really talk about it because it’s unfair, it’s truly insensitive and it’s treasonous to the idea of fairness and equality in a sport where you have predominantly black players that helped create and maintain.”
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