George Floyd. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. Eric Garner. Stephon Clark. Philando Castile.
And that’s to name only a few.
Another name that, on more than one occasion, could’ve easily been added to that long list? Gary Sheffield.
The first time I experienced police brutality was in 1986, when I was 18. I was with my uncle Dwight Gooden — the Michael Jordan of baseball at the time — and some friends at a University of South Florida basketball game. As we were leaving in three separate cars, we were all pulled over without cause. The police detained my uncle — put him in cuffs and slammed him face-first to the ground.
At that moment, I didn’t see police officers — I saw men in uniform illegally harassing and assaulting my uncle. Instinctively, I ran over full-speed to confront them. There were five or six of them, and needless to say it didn’t go well.
In fact, I could’ve been killed.
They proceeded to beat all of us unmercifully — beat us with flashlights. Not satisfied, they then loaded us into their cars and took us to the dog track — which was deserted — where they proceeded to assault us again until we were black, blue and swollen. Only then did they arrest us. In the end, Dwight and I got probation. Nothing ever happened to the cops. Afterward, things got so uncomfortable for us in Tampa that we actually both had to move to St. Pete.
More recently, in 2015, I was driving my white Rolls-Royce down from Tampa to Miami for a charity golf tournament along with my friends, Winky Wright and Steve Monroe. Smoking a cigar, I waved at a police officer as we passed his car on the highway — and he subsequently pulled us over.
The officer recognized me, told me that he was a fan and soon disappeared. But in his place appeared five additional police cars and a K-9 unit.
They searched everything.
All of our belongings were scattered along the highway as they illegally searched my car — so I began to film them. At that point I was told I couldn’t film anything because it was a “criminal investigation.”
Agitated, an officer grabbed my arm, and we stood eye to eye. I told the officer, “I’m gonna count to three, and you better take your hands off of me.” He did, and then he told us we were free to go.
Again, I could’ve been killed.
The unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily — and far too often — happened to me or others.
What has made George Floyd’s death a defining moment in this country — what distinguishes it from countless others who were murdered and remain anonymous — was that this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen.
We saw a man take his last breath — we collectively bore witness to a modern-day lynching.
In my 22 years as a professional athlete, I have been labeled “outspoken” and “controversial.” And while it hasn’t been easy, I have worn each of those labels as a badge of honor. I wasn’t afraid to call out racial bias when I saw it, even when nobody backed me up.
So I ask you: Now do you believe me?
Because I stood alone then. But we stand together now – and that’s why I’m sharing my stories.
For black people, these injustices are nothing new. But for white people, people of privilege, this is revelatory. Their eyes have been forced open to view life through the same harsh lens as a person of color.
This is our time — our time to do God’s work. It isn’t the time to let up. It isn’t the time for superficial comments and empty statements. This is our moment to turn tragedy into triumph. It is our opportunity to put a stop to years of systemic racism, oppression and discrimination.
It ends now. And it ends with us. All of us.