CFL players say work still to be done in tackling racial injustice

Bryan Burnham wasn't shocked when his fellow CFL players recounted their personal stories of experiencing racism. The B.C. Lions wide receiver knows there are too many stories to be told.

Grey Cup Unite provides opportunity to share experiences with racism

B.C. Lions' Bryan Burnham, seen in 2019, was part of a panel of CFL players, coaches and management discussing racism and social injustice for Grey Cup Unite on Wednesday. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Bryan Burnham wasn't shocked when his fellow CFL players recounted their personal stories of experiencing racism.

The B.C. Lions wide receiver knows there are too many stories to be told.

"It's disappointing to hear, but it definitely wasn't surprising," he said in an interview from his home in Tulsa, Okla. "I think you could go through every locker room and talk to any Black player and they would have a story about some kind of discrimination that they've had."

Burnham joined players, coaches and alumni from around the league for a virtual discussion about diversity and racial justice Wednesday as part of the CFL's Grey Cup Unite festival.

Some of the stories shared were "pretty crazy," Burnham said.

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Natey Adjei, a wide receiver for the Toronto Argonauts, talked about when, at 14 years old, he was taken down by heavily armed police with a semi automatic weapon pressed into his back as he left his home on the way to football practice.

Blue Bombers defensive lineman Jackson Jeffcoat told the group about the nervousness he felt after being pulled over for "driving while Black" a few years ago.

Vontae Diggs, a linebacker for Edmonton, shared a memory of walking into an IHOP while on a college visit and realizing no one in the restaurant looked like him.

"We're standing there looking around and, I tell you, you can hear a mouse walking in that place," Diggs said. "It was one of the most freakishly scary moments of my life, where I really for a second didn't think we was going to walk out because the look of disgust was on every single face in that facility."

It's disappointing that talking about racial inequality and injustice is still necessary, Burnham said

"I thought we were past this as a country," he said.

Protests and calls for action on racial injustice swept across not only the United States but the world earlier this year after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn.

Importance of conversation

For Nate Behar, former wide receiver for the Ottawa Redblacks, the reaction was difficult to take.

"It's hard as a man sitting here to see that outcry and hear that outcry and hear people with their hollow statements of like 'I can't believe something like this would happen,"' he told the panel.

"The first thing that always comes to my mind whenever I hear anything like that is what selective blindness have you decided to live with that this surprises you? Disgusts you, for sure, but surprise?"

Black people have been oppressed for generations and the best revenge they can get is to live well, Diggs said.

"We're just going to have to keep levelling up every single time that they want to keep shutting us down. And that's what we keep doing," he said.

Many of the panellists agreed that it's important to continue talking about race and making sure that those who have promised to make changes follow through.

Businesses are going to say whatever needs to be said to keep people using their products and services, said former Hamilton Tiger-Cats offensive tackle Terence Campbell.

"But are [the businesses] really hiring more people of colour?" said Campbell, now a police officer in San Jose, Cal. "Are you taking the time out to really understand and open up your heart to realize what's going on, to be a part of the change? Are you really becoming part of the change?"

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More can be done to help Black people advance in the CFL, too, said Adjei.

The league already has measures to help Canadian athletes succeed and similar programs could be created to help Black players and staff, he said.

Black men like Argos general manager Michael "Pinball" Clemons and Ed Hervey [former general manager of the Edmonton Football Club and B.C. Lions] have already shown that it's possible to reach the top of the league, said Jason Shivers.

"But we need those people to start training the next generation," said Shivers, defensive coordinator for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. "It's not like we're saying 'Oh, there's not other people who wouldn't be good interns, too.' We just know it doesn't happen that fast for people of our skin tone or our colour and whatnot."

Black people don't want to be singled out, they simply want to be equal, said Khari Jones, head coach of the Montreal Alouettes.

When Jones first came to the CFL, he knew the league had seen other Black quarterbacks so his race wasn't an issue in the same way it had been in the U.S.

"I knew if I succeeded, I succeeded on my own terms, if I didn't succeed, I didn't succeed on my own terms. If a coach didn't like me, it wasn't going to be because I was Black," he said. "I didn't have that feeling. And that's all anybody wants."

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