On Tuesday, Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman called a meeting for the team’s entire personnel department. After all the trauma the state has endured in the wake of the death of George Floyd after a violent encounter with Minneapolis police two weeks ago, Spielman wanted to give his virtual employees a platform to share, speak and learn.
The meeting was emotional, he says, and tears flowed as one scout described the unease he feels whenever he is pulled over by the police during a business trip.
“To sit there and listen to one of our minority scouts tell them that when they travel around this country and they get pulled over … [they think], ‘Is this the last time I’ll have an opportunity to talk to my family?’” Spielman said. “Our white scouts, and our white personnel people that were on there, can’t understand that because they’ve never been in that situation.”
Spielman, who is white, can actually relate as he thinks about one of his adopted sons of color encountering the police.
“When they go out on their own, and one of my sons gets pulled over because he’s driving my wife’s car — a really nice car — and … my son actually has to call home to get my wife on the phone to explain that is our son and that is our car,” Spielman said. “It just tears me apart that we have a society that’s still like that.”
These are the conversations that are being had in a region that is ground zero for the tragedy that has rocked the world by shining a light on racial injustice and police brutality. When something like that happens, it’s no wonder that people tend to turn inward and reflect on what they can do to fix it, and sports teams are no exception. While Major League Baseball’s Minnesota Twins announced Wednesday that they are donating $25 million to racial justice causes in the Twin Cities, the Wilf family, owners of the Vikings, announced a donation of $5 million to social justice causes earlier in the day.
The Vikings weren’t done, as the team’s social justice committee, which was formed in 2018 and is also funded by the Wilfs, also announced the creation of the George Floyd Legacy Scholarship with an establishing gift of $125,000. The scholarship will be given annually to an African-American student headed for college.
“It’s very, very unusual to see ownership and football program do what the Vikings have done, way ahead of what everyone else is trying to do right now,” defensive line coach Andre Patterson said.
Yet, just like America itself, questions still remain for the team in the wake of tragedy. For instance, will the organization follow the University of Minnesota’s lead and sever its relationship with the Minneapolis police department? Will a Viking kneel during the national anthem for the first time this fall? And if he does, will the organization support him?
Spielman and several other Vikings were asked those questions during Wednesday’s 80-minute video call.
Will the Vikings kneel?
In 2018, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said it’s “important” that players stand for the national anthem.
Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem in 2016 as a protest against police brutality and racial inequality, but no Viking has joined in yet. After a few quiet years on that front with only three players in the NFL regularly kneeling in 2019, the overwhelming outrage that Floyd’s death sparked has led to widespread belief more will kneel in 2020.
“Do I see us seeing more of it? Yes, because I feel like players now are starting to feel heard and people are starting to speak up about issues that are happening in their communities,” said linebacker Eric Kendricks, who was one of the first players to call out the NFL for releasing a toothless statement shortly after Floyd’s death.
.@NFL what actual steps are you taking to support the fight for justice and system reform?— Eric Kendricks (@EricKendricks54) June 2, 2020
Your statement said nothing. Your league is built on black athletes. Vague answers do nothing. Let the players know what you’re ACTUALLY doing.
And we know what silence means. pic.twitter.com/EOqzDjW1an
But will Vikings players kneel also? Kendricks said it hasn’t been discussed yet.
“We’ll discuss it as a team,” said running back Ameer Abdullah, who kneeled in 2017. Abdullah added that players who do so will likely face less backlash than before.
It’s worth noting that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell softened his stance on kneeling in a statement last Friday, noting that he will encourage players to peacefully protest.
And when asked if that statement will affect the Vikings’ stance on the matter, Spielman only intimated that whatever players end up doing, they’ll likely do it together.
“A couple of years ago when the players were kneeling, our ownership was heavily involved and we talked about it in our social justice committee,” Spielman said. “And with the culture and the type of people we have in our locker room, we’ve always done things as a team. The players decided we lock arms, and that was the way we’d show our solidarity. Since Coach Zim has been here [beginning in 2014], the culture we have built in our organization, we have always worked together as one and hopefully that’s an example out there in today’s society. We shouldn’t be divided, we should be working together as one to achieve the common goal.”
The players who spoke Wednesday revealed that Zimmer expressed empathy for their cause while addressing Floyd’s death in a recent Zoom call.
“It was a big thing because he communicated to us that he doesn't understand, he is not from the same background, he does not share the same skin, he can't begin to relate with us,” Kendricks said. “But he hears us and he's there for us, and if we wanted him to get involved with anything we have going on with the committee, he's right there with us.”
Abdullah added that Zimmer’s message hit home.
“He humbled himself greatly and said, ‘Man, I don't understand, maybe I haven’t given this as much attention,’” Abdullah said. “But I know I love everyone in this room, and I’ll fight for every single one of you guys like you were my sons.”
Will the team sever its relationship with police?
Shortly after Floyd’s death, the University of Minnesota ended its relationship with the Minneapolis Police Department. The Vikings have not done so, and as such, the first question of Wednesday’s call was about whether it was considered.
“We have opened a dialogue with Chief ‘Rondo’ [Medaria Arradondo] and the Minneapolis Police Department, really led by our players,” Vikings COO Andrew Miller said. “We’re still talking through [it], on a number of different levels, internally and externally. We’re trying to understand the different perspectives people have and trying to make the best decision possible. There’s complexities to any relationship and ultimately we want to do what's best for our organization and our fans.”
Miller acknowledged that Floyd’s death has highlighted facets of society that are broken, including policing, which has led to systemic racism. As such, several Vikings have continued to have dialogue with Arradondo, and several of them even met with him recently to ask questions about his department’s methods.
“The message we want to continue to put out is, despite issues that may pop up, we don’t think distancing ourselves and not having those hard conversations will be productive to bringing us closer together,” safety Anthony Harris said. “We believe [talking is] gonna be something that bridges the disconnect.”
This is about bridging the gap, not just on the issue of police brutality, but social injustice, too. To get there, people will have to understand each other better, which is why Spielman called the staff meeting that turned emotional Tuesday and Kendricks chose to speak up after the NFL released its first (and ineffective) statement on the matter earlier this month.
“I stand by that decision, and I wouldn’t have done it, honestly, if the Vikings didn’t have my back and we had not already been talking about these issues previously and already had a council devoted to these specific issues,” Kendricks said.
While the formation of the George Floyd scholarship is a good start, he said, the work is far from done for the team’s committee. All hands are on deck, including the Wilfs’, as the football team located in the city where one of the biggest stories of the year rages continues to seek ways to heal a hurting community.
“They’ve been in the meetings interacting with us,” Kendricks said of the Wilfs. “We’ve had open dialogue about the issues that have happened. We’ve gotten a lot closer than any of us could have even thought.
“We’re all putting our heads together and trying to really, really create change. Money can do a lot, but we really have an opportunity to create change, and that’s what we’re going for.”
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