"Educate yourself and educate the people around you so that you understand what's going on," Victor Cruz tells PEOPLE

By Lindsay Kimble
June 23, 2020 01:27 PM

Victor Cruz is doing his part in the fight against systemic racism and wants others — including the NFL — to join him.

The E! News host and former New York Giant opens up to PEOPLE about how he moved from initial "hurt" and "confusion" to a place of action after the May death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, while in police custody.

"The fact that we're watching it and we can see this, we can see what's happening, we can hear the dialogue, we can hear what's going on — it makes it all come to life," Cruz tells PEOPLE of watching the video of a police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. "And it just all breaks your heart at the end of the day."

Cruz — who often joins E!'s Daily Pop — says "over and over again," he asks himself, "Why us? Why is this happening to the Black community?"

"I've shifted a lot of my focus to putting my energy towards the Black community and putting not just my energy, but my dollars and where I spend my money. I want to do my due diligence, to help out any and every way possible," he explains.

The 33-year-old — who played with the Giants for the 2010 to 2016 seasons and officially announced his retirement in 2018 — says he's been proud of the NFL players speaking out about his former league's past response to athlete #TakeAKnee protests for an end to police brutality.

Earlier this month, a collection of NFL players released a joint video that called for the organization to do more about racial inequality.

"On behalf of the National Football League, this is what we the players would like to hear you state," the players said in the video.

"We, the National Football League, condemn racism and the systemic oppression of black people," they said. "We, the National Football League, admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting. We, the National Football League, believe Black lives matter."

Cruz says he applauds the players for creating the video, which prompted a response from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who said, "[We] admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest."

"You can tell it was something that [the players] wanted to do and that they felt strongly about," he tells PEOPLE. "And I think it put Roger Goodell's feet to the fire and he had to say something at that point."

The athlete says that he hopes the NFL now understands what the movement sparked by former player Colin Kaepernick was about: "social injustice and police brutality and the way this country was seeing those things as topics tearing down the Black community."

"I think having that statement is bold and it's great for Roger, and it's great for the NFL to kind of come out," he says of the league's response. "But now it's time for action. ... Now we know, now you can't blame ignorance. Everyone sees what's going on. Now it's time to see a difference and a change moving forward."

During his own time as a pro player, Cruz tells PEOPLE he doesn't remember experiencing racism but suggests that's likely because of his high-profile career.

"But have I experienced it in my college years and my high school years and day-to-day? Absolutely," he says. "On more than one occasion have I been called the N-word to my face? Have I been murmured about behind my back as I walked by, or little things like that, that you just kind of don't understand at the time and in the moment? Yes."

Cruz — who is the father of one, daughter Kennedy, 8 — says it's important to keep the momentum of change going, even as protests fizzle out across the country.

"I think it's first finding organizations to give to in order to help them help the Black community," he tells PEOPLE, noting he's donated to the NAACP and will focus his own foundation, the Victor Cruz Foundation, on more efforts in supporting the Black community.

The star says it's also important to "educate yourself and educate the people around you so that you understand what's going on."

"There are so many different levels of change that need to happen, that I just remain optimistic that slowly but surely those changes will come," he says. "And I think now will be the start. Will I be alive to see those changes come to fruition? I don't think so. But I think by the time my daughter's my age, we'll see a new world that she'll be living in, it'll be much different than the one I grew up in."

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