12/21/2016 12:03 EST

CFL Legend Michael 'Pinball' Clemons Says Systemic Racism Is Bigger Than The Police

Anti-black racism has been one of the defining issues of 2016 as police violence, racial profiling and trials (or lack thereof) prompted Black Lives Matter protests across the continent, including BLM-Toronto setting up camp at police headquarters and staging a sit-down during the Toronto's Pride Parade.

But Michael "Pinball" Clemons — a beloved CFL Hall of Famer who remains an Argos exec and runs his own charitable foundation as well as being a motivational speaker — says the issue extends beyond policing.

"Police get a bad rap because it's not [just] the police community, it's all communities."

"I'll probably get crucified for saying this, but the police get a bad rap because it's not [just] the police community, it's all communities," he told HuffPost Canada during a backstage interview at the We Day youth activism rally in Toronto earlier this fall.

pinball clemons we day

Michael "Pinball" Clemons seen on stage at WE Day on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016, in Toronto. (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

"When you go to a counter in a store and you arrive first and someone else comes, and when the person behind the counter consistently asks for the order of the other person, that says to you that you're not as important, right? The reality is, if you and I are both going for a job, and we have the same level of education, you're several times more likely to get that job than I am, just because of the colour of my skin," Clemons explains.

"If we get stopped by the police, right, I'm more likely to get a ticket than you are. In the judicial system, I'm more likely to get jail time. So we talk about the police but we don't talk about the judge, we don't talk about the [store] clerk. This is a comprehensive experience."

So we talk about the police but we don't talk about the judge, we don't talk about the [store] clerk. This is a comprehensive experience."

"That doesn't mean that I walk around and say I feel discriminated against," he adds, noting that his success has mitigated for him what other members of his community face.

"I walk around in Canada with a great deal of freedom. I love this country. I embrace this country. This is my home, and I don't feel that, right? But I can say that there are probably — not probably — there are a lot of people who do feel that. A lot of that is socioeconomic, and it's hard to understand if it doesn't happen to you."

Clemons also says he understands why there's such a focus on policing after incidents like the beating death of Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa or the shooting death of Andrew Loku in Toronto.

"I do believe that it's a bigger challenge than police officers but loss of life is the most powerful thing that is in our society. Dignity can be restored. So I believe that the bright light is shining on the police community because many times this has resulted in death. But I think it's important to acknowledge if we keep it to that, we're suggesting that it's refined to this, right? And the fact is, it's not."

Interview continues after slideshow

Black Lives Matter Toronto

Clemons "applauds" modern movements like Black Lives Matter, but says he'd like to see the fight against racism grow beyond the black community.

"I don't think we've had a movement as productive as the Martin Luther King civil rights movement since that time. The gradual shift has not occurred. I think maybe the thinking was that this big shift will give us the ability to make the small changes, to make a more level playing field. That has not happened," he says.

The former footballer says all communities have to come together to solve systemic racism but in the meantime he's doing what he can to help now. His Pinball Clemons Foundation does work in marginalized Toronto communities, as well as collaborating with for international development efforts, in order to lift up at-risk youth. The foundation funds scholarships, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) programs, leadership training and efforts to help kids who quit high school get their diploma.

"I really believe it's about... people of colour understanding and believing that our success is in our control."

"We believe that education is the number one determinant of our life, health, wealth, freedom and family. When you are able to help kids through the education process, you can give them a hand-up, not a hand-out. They've got something they can use, they can take, be independent, have a life of dignity and be what they want to be," he says.

"I really believe it's about us, each of us individually as young men of colour, as people of colour, understanding and believing that our success is in our control. It's not in someone else's control. In most situations, young people believe the system is against them. It actually pains me to understand there's young people out there who truly don't believe there's any option [to] be who they desire to be, and it's so frustrating."

So Clemons message to young people is "that somebody's fighting for you [because] when you know that, it's a game-changer."

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Mike "Pinball" Clemons