MINNEAPOLIS - The Minnesota Vikings are in the middle of their virtual offseason, but team meetings lately have had little to do with football.
The Vikings, like most sports teams and athletes, are using their platform to communicate, learn and try to find a way to move forward in the wake of the officer-involved death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It’s the latest incident of an African-American man dying at the hands of a white police officer, and it has tensions between the community and police department as high as they’ve ever been.
On Wednesday, Vikings players Eric Kendricks, Anthony Harris and Ameer Abdullah, GM Rick Spielman, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson and Chief Operating Officer Andrew Miller all participated in a near 90-minute Zoom call. They talked about what their emotions in the wake of Floyd’s death, how they’re moving forward, shared personal stories about racial profiling and talked about emotional team meetings.
Here's a sample of what was shared:
What the Vikings are doing
The Vikings took action well before Wednesday’s video conference. Three years ago, the team formed a social justice committee that serves as a sounding board for players to address racial issues, communicate with each other and take action when they see fit. Patterson said when that group first met, it was one of the most important meetings the organization has had.
Last Friday, Kyle Rudolph and other Vikings players were at the Cub Foods in south Minneapolis that was damaged and looted by rioters in the days after Floyd’s death. They joined other Minnesota sports figures in a food and supply drive for area residents who didn’t have a place to shop for essential goods, with most businesses damaged or destroyed in the riots.
The Vikings announced Wednesday the Wilf family is donating $5 million to various social justice causes. That same social justice committee that was created three years ago took about a week’s time after Floyd’s death on May 25 to create the George Floyd Legacy Scholarship. The $125,000 gift will go annually to a black student for college.
“We understand it’s going to take more than money, it’s going to take more than statements. Frankly it’s going to take action, and we’re committed as an organization to eliminate racism, to influence positive reform of law enforcement, to promote racial and social equity through education,” Miller said.
Vikings share emotional, personal stories
Spielman shared a pair of emotional stories on Wednesday, detailing his team and his family. He called a virtual meeting among his scouts and personnel, black and white, and everyone had a platform to talk and listen. The minority scouts that work for the Vikings shared stories about being out on the road and racially profiled, being pulled over by authorities and not knowing the future result.
“To sit there and listen to one of our minority scouts tell him when they travel around this country and if they get pulled over, they don’t know if they’re going to go home and see their families. Is this the last time I got a chance to talk to my family? Our white scouts and our white personnel can’t understand that because they’ve never been in that situation,” Spielman said.
As hard as it was to hear that within his own staff, Spielman also shared a personal story that had him fighting tears Wednesday. Spielman has a multiracial family, including three black kids, and shared a story about how one of them had to call home after being pulled over for being in his wife’s car. The assumption was the car was stolen.
“When I’m able to go out in the community with my wife and we have our kids with us, they see a whole different world. But when they go out on their own and one of my sons gets pulled over because he’s driving my wife’s car that’s a really nice car, and he gets pulled over because of the color of his skin. To think that black man can’t be driving that car, he must have stolen that car and my son actually has to call and get my wife on the phone to explain that is our son and that is our car. I struggle to try to explain to our kids why they have to live in two different worlds,” Spielman said. “It just tears me apart that we have society that’s still like that.”
Anthony Harris shared a story about how he was in his car after going to the grocery store earlier this week, and saw a police car on a one-way street in his neighborhood. Harris said he wanted to pull over and engage in conversation with the officer, but was sitting on the side of the road with his flashers on. It was at that time he realized he could be a threat, instead of wanting to initiate change.
“It crossed my mind that I could be potentially shot or viewed as a threat just for what I was trying to do. I made sure I proceeded with extra caution, that I didn’t surprise him. It kind of just kept things in perspective that no matter where you go, no matter what you’re doing as an African-American man, that’s something that you can’t shake,” Harris said.
Ameer Abdullah labeled 2020 by saying it’s been “two gut punches.” He is originally from Atlanta, not far from where Ahmaud Arbury was killed by two armed white men in February. Now Floyd’s death at the hands of officer Derek Chauvin, who is now jailed on second-degree murder charges.
“Though 2020 has been a tough year for us economically and socially, I think it’s a good time for us to see a lot of things that are going on. There’s no better time for us to stand on a platform and incite change,” Miller said.
Mike Zimmer stands with his players
Not long after Floyd’s death sent shockwaves around Minneapolis and the rest of the world, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer held a meeting with his team with a message: He didn’t understand what his minority players were going through as Floyd’s death sparked talk of racism and social injustice. But he stands by them, and his door is open if they need a listening ear.
“He communicated to us that he does not understand, he is not from the same background, he does not share the same skin. He can’t begin to relate with us, but he hears us. He’s there for us, and he expressed that. If we want him to get involved with anything that we have going on as a committee, he’s right there with us. We need to start having that dialogue. It’s uncomfortable to say that, I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to do that, but for him to come and say that to everybody was big,” Kendricks said.
“Just coming in, hearing from him and speaking from the heart and humbling himself, saying ‘I don’t have all the answers, I don’t have the solutions. I may not have the understanding but I do have that compassion and that want to, to understand.’ That was really a big step. It’s OK if you don’t understand and it’s OK if you haven’t experienced it. You being able to humble yourself and really listen to us and want to understand is how we can turn this into a positive,” Harris said.
“I think the biggest thing I took away from it when Zim addressed the team was just his openness to discussion. He humbled himself greatly and said, ‘Man I don’t understand and maybe I haven’t given this as much attention. But I know I love every single last one of you guys in this room and I’ll fight for you guys just like you were my sons.’ That meant a lot for me. To have Zim come out, humble himself and say ‘I don’t understand, but I stand with you’ was powerful for me,” Abdullah said.
Meeting with the Minneapolis Police Department
Many organizations have already severed their partnerships with the Minneapolis Police Department, or those conversations are at least in the works. Not so for the Vikings, who use Minneapolis police among several agencies for security at U.S. Bank Stadium when more than 60,000 rabid football fans, many who have indulged in pregame adult beverages, descend on downtown Minneapolis.
Miller wouldn’t speculate on where the team’s relationship with Minneapolis police stands. They’re more focused on taking a positive approach to police reform and what steps need to be taken to move forward.
“We’ve had a number of conversations and that’s allowed us to listen. Trying to make the best decision possible and ultimately we want to do what’s best for our organization and for our fans,” Miller said.
That’s not just limited to the top team officials. Last weekend, 10 Vikings players went to the department and spoke with Chief Medaria Arradondo, two other black officers and one white officer. They expressed their concerns, listened to what officers had to say and asked what they can do to move forward.
“I can’t be more prouder of them by them getting prepared and asking the questions. I also was very impressed with Chief Rondo and his openness to talk to us about all the issues and the issues within the force. How we all can come together to make change,” Spielman said.
“We don’t think condemning and distancing ourselves and not having those hard conversations is going to be productive to bringing us closer together. We’re all trying to be understanding one another and make the right decision of what’s best for the society,” Harris said.
Vikings speak out on Floyd’s death, racism
In the past, NFL players have been condemned for speaking out on racism and social injustice. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been in the NFL since the 2016 season after taking a knee during the National Anthem to take a stand against police brutality.
That’s all changed now, in part because according to Patterson, we’ve all seen how Floyd died. Patterson was in L.A. during the riots surrounding Rodney King.
“I’m a child of the 60s, this has been going on my whole life. It’s different because through time, the black community has been telling the world that this has been going on. A lot of people didn’t want to believe it was going on. A person had to do something wrong to get choked to death, shot, whatever. This is the reason why this one is different, because the whole world got to see life leave that man’s body. The whole world got to see that. That changed everything. They got to see it from start to finish,” Patterson said. “That’s why you see the protests the way you do, that’s why you see a wide volume of people protesting. The whole world got to see that it’s true. This is real, it’s real and that’s the difference for me.”
Kendricks said in the days after Floyd’s death, he was emotional and frustrated. He was one of many players to call out the NFL for a lack of action on racism and social injustice. His intentions were positive and the Vikings supported him. His words and those of many others prompted Roger Goodell to come out in support of players speaking out.
“That response was good. That’s what we wanted, we wanted to be acknowledged. It’s uncomfortable for everybody, but these are issues that are facing a majority of the players’ communities,” Kendricks said. “For us to feel like we can’t speak up about it, it just didn’t feel right. I feel like we can all move forward now. I truly believe that it’s going to bring the best out of us.”
This was the start for Kendricks and others to take action, now that they feel they have a voice.
“It was always wanting to speak out and say something, but it was more so just trying to get an understanding of when I speak up and when I voice issues that are going on, is what I say going to change anything? Just trying to find the right words to spark that change. How can I get individuals who aren’t affected to be more aware? That was really my voice and has always been my objective,” Harris said.
The Vikings don’t know if they’ll have a peaceful protest this season. In 2017, the social justice committee met and the players decided to lock arms as a team. That hasn’t been talked about yet, but now they feel they have a platform, and they’ll speak one way or another.
“This was an issue that we’ll continue to face. It wasn’t going to change, and I decided to use my platform and it was important. I had to say something,” Kendricks said. “We really have an opportunity to create change and that’s what we’re going for.”