Numb — that was the first word Atlanta Falcons captain and safety Ricardo Allen used to describe his emotions as he watched the video of a fellow black man, George Floyd, being killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
Allen’s heart ached as the officer kept his knee on Floyd’s neck as Floyd said, “I can’t breathe.” In Allen’s eyes, it was an all-too-familiar tale.
“I don’t see it as happening to just one person. I keep seeing it as a replay of what has happened hundreds of times,” Allen said. “… But over and over, when you keep seeing this kind of thing happen to black men, it makes you pretty mad.”
Floyd’s killing was the tipping point in a series of killings of African Americans that have made the names Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor more meaningful and the cause taken up by Colin Kaepernick for social justice more powerful. Allen, one of the original organizers of the Falcons’ social justice committee in 2017, said he strives to educate himself with the goal of helping mend a fractured nation.
He gained an even better understanding of the fight against racial injustice — and the value of peaceful protests — during a 2018 trip to Selma, Alabama, on the anniversary of the historic tragedy.
Remembering ‘Bloody Sunday’
Allen joined fellow Falcon Grady Jarrett and NFL players Adrian Clayborn, Benjamin Watson, Matthew Slater and Takeo Spikes on a pilgrimage across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on the 53rd anniversary of “Bloody Sunday.”
On March 7, 1965, a group of around 600 protesters, led by civil rights activist and current U.S. Rep. John Lewis, attempted to walk from Selma to Alabama’s capital, Montgomery, in a peaceful demonstration for black voting rights. The group was confronted at the bridge by state troopers, who charged with billy clubs, tear gas and whips. Lewis suffered a skull fracture, 17 others were reportedly hospitalized and over 50 suffered lesser injuries. Television cameras captured the violence, which caused a national outcry.
The events of “Bloody Sunday” inspired two subsequent marches from Selma to Montgomery, led by civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. Only the third march was completed without interference. The events were instrumental in the eventual passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, prohibiting state and local governments to deny citizens equal rights to vote based on race.
“To get down there and see how they had to fight to cross the bridge for our right to vote, for me to actually get to walk and be around history, that’s just a blessing to soak up,” Allen said. “That’s something I want to be able to pass down to the next generation; to spread light to folks to know [the right to vote] wasn’t always like this. People fought for this and are continuing to fight for us to have equal rights.”
Former Falcons assistant general manager Scott Pioli invited and encouraged the players to attend the Selma event, which was sponsored by RISE (Ross Initiative in Sports Equality) to help raise awareness about civil rights and racism.
“When you learn the history and you’re exposed to the history, it allows you to be much more educated in order to fight for what’s right,” Pioli said.
Pioli, who also walked in Selma, has close relationships with all the players involved. He viewed Allen as the ideal representative based on his leadership skills.
“First of all, Ricardo is brilliant,” Pioli said. “And when I say brilliant, I mean that he’s both smart and thoughtful. He’s strong and he’s empathetic. He’s truthful and willing to be vulnerable. In the conversations that we’ve had, he’s expressed truths to me about his personal history with racism.”
The most memorable part of Selma for Allen was the time spent with Lewis, who is now 80 and living with pancreatic cancer yet still on the front line in the fight toward equality. Lewis says he was arrested at least 40 times during the civil rights movement, including in 1961 in Jackson, Mississippi, for using a whites-only restroom.
“I mean, he got his skull busted, which makes me feel the same way I feel whenever I hear about any brother getting hit across the head, or any human being treated wrong for trying to do right,” Allen said. “You’re getting attacked and beat down because of [thoughts] other people have made in their own mind about what your value might be in the world.
“With John Lewis, I just see a true dedication to the cause. Even right now, he’s not moving as good as he used to because he’s an older man, but he’s still out there every year marching and letting the world know that this is still important to him.”
The lessons learned in Selma, Allen said, can still be applied to the fight for change, starting with exercising the right to vote and educating oneself.
“I’m always for education because when you just get out and jump in and start talking about everything too fast, one of the things that’s going to happen is you’re going to get discredited,” Allen, 28, said. “You’ve got to try and educate yourself as much as you can. I don’t think I know everything, but I know that I’m trying my best to help the cause.”
Striving for progress today
When asked if he has been racially profiled, Allen, who grew up in a low-income area of Daytona Beach, Florida, snickered.
“Yeah, I feel like I’ve been racially profiled plenty of times,” he said. “I was stopped at Purdue University one time when I first got there. … I got my bookbag searched one time walking on campus and didn’t have anything in it.
“It’s sad because as a young black man, you’re kind of trained to go along with it because you don’t want no problems.”
Being “sized up” because of his race is something Allen said he can no longer accept. He hasn’t figured out the specific solution, but vowed even after Selma to make a long-lasting impact so black men of the future don’t endure an unfair standard.
“I don’t just want to make an impact one time, or once or twice,” Allen said. “I want to start working toward something where I can make an impact in the black community — social justice and equality — forever.”
It starts with open and honest dialogue, particularly with teammates. Racial injustice was at the forefront of the conversation when the Falcons held their virtual team meeting this past week. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was the special guest speaker and encouraged the players and coaches to be leaders, to be active.
Allen appreciated breaking into small-group discussions following the mayor’s pep talk. He admired how passionate his new defensive-backs coach, Joe Whitt Jr., was in discussing racial issues. His teammate Deion Jones followed later in the week by addressing the media on the topic and saying, “It starts with people’s willingness to listen and learn about what it’s like to be a black man in America. Also, just taking action and voting, making sure we’re holding people accountable.”
Allen, who encourages his white teammates to speak out for equality and unity, also applauded quarterback Matt Ryan for posting a statement after Floyd was killed:
“Matt’s our top dog. For Ice to show the support and that he’s got love, it’s really just an acknowledgement that he understands,” Allen said of Ryan.
Allen’s ultimate goal is to become an offensive coordinator, and he hopes to use that coaching platform to encourage young black athletes to find solutions to racism rather than being part of the problem.
As the Falcons move closer to the NFL season, Allen was asked if the current unrest might spark another round of player protests on Sundays, and whether he would take part.
“If we’re all for it, we’re all for it,” Allen said of taking a knee. “I just want to do it together. If it calls for kneeling and that ends up being what everybody wants to support, I’m down for the cause. I just want to make sure it’s something that we’re all together on. I will get on my head and do a headstand if they want me to … as long as we’re together.”