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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Listen to the challenges of black men

Former NFL player Champ Bailey takes a selfie

Former NFL player Champ Bailey takes a selfie with his bust during the induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Aug. 3, 2019, in Canton, Ohio. Credit: AP/Ron Schwane

Colin Kaepernick’s foes often seize on his socks depicting pigs dressed as police officers, his Che Guevara T-shirt and his “disrespect” to the American flag as reasons to ignore the quarterback’s message on race and violence in America. Now they have an opportunity to hear that same message stripped of inflammatory aspects.

Can they listen, and accept that his words are true ?

In his nearly two decades in the spotlight as a football player with the University of Georgia, the Washington Redskins and the Denver Broncos, Champ Bailey was never anything but upstanding. As an athletic hero, a community member, a teammate and father and husband, he has earned our respect.

In his induction speech to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, Bailey presented an extraordinary challenge to those who rail against Kaepernick and other NFL players who kneel during the national anthem. Bailey asked white Americans to take systemic racism and violence against young black men seriously, and delivered his plea in a way that could not be portrayed as disrespectful. Not to police, not to soldiers, not to the flag or the nation.

He asked white Americans to listen to the black people in their lives, fellow workers and students, soldiers and police officers, friends and neighbors, and to not deny the hard reality of the black experience.

This is the segment of Bailey’s speech that dealt with some of the dangers and fears and difficulties black people face in the United States:

“Out of the people I mentioned tonight, most of you are black men, my brothers, some of you athletes, some of you not athletes. But we are all black men first, something we have more expertise in than any aspect of our lives.

“I’m a firm believer that if you want to create change, you better start with your friends and your family. So I’m starting here today.

“The first thing people see when they look at me, is not a Pro Football Hall of Famer or a husband or a father. 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 most of 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. And please do not get caught up in how the message is delivered. Yes, yes, most of us are black men, are athletes, but we are black men first. Understand this. Things that make us great on the field, like our size and our aggression, are the same things that can get us killed off the field.

“I believe if we start listening, there’s no telling the progress we can make. All of us are dads, sons, brothers, your friends. We all understand that if we can’t get our friends to listen, then no one will. And to my black brothers, if you do not have anything positive to say about our social challenges, please keep your mouth shut.”

Bailey asked people angry at Kaepernick to look past how the message is presented, but also implored black people to deliver the message positively, so that it can truly be heard. Black men have the right to speak angrily, but Bailey is probably right about what works.

Champ Bailey shared truths about the black experience that are borne out in statistics and in front of our eyes, courteously and with love. Now the only reason to deny this hateful reality is to preserve it.

 Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.