‘United Are We’: Gophers AD Mark Coyle, P.J. Fleck react to George Floyd’s death

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck during a Big Ten conference football game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 16, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)

All eyes across the country have been on Minneapolis and the Twin Cities as racial tensions grow over the officer-involved death of George Floyd last Monday night.

It was one week ago that Minneapolis Police Department officers responded to 38th and Chicago on a report of a forgery in progress. Officers spotted a man, later identified as Floyd, matching the suspect description in his car. Floyd was in handcuffs, appeared to be under the influence and then officer Derek Chauvin had him pinned to the ground with his knee on Floyd’s neck for several minutes.

Floyd screamed for help, saying “I can’t breathe.” He eventually lost consciousness and was taken by ambulance to Hennepin County Medical Center, where he died a short time later.

Protests and civil unrest followed the rest of the week, hitting a dangerous high on the night the police department’s Third Precinct in south Minneapolis was taken over by rioters and set on fire. The next night, demonstrators tried to do the same thing to the Fifth Precinct, but were unsuccessful.

The situation has led to several discussions across the sports landscape. Locally, University of Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck released a statement last Friday, saying he’s had several team meetings and met with parents of players since the events surrounding Floyd and his death unfolded. Fleck was one of five Division I coaches last Friday to say something publicly.

“I felt it was appropriate to communicate fully with our team, staff, parents and recruits before commenting publicly on the tragic loss of George Floyd. This week has been extremely difficult for our community and state, as we mourn the unnecessary loss of Mr. Floyd. His death was indefensible, and I stand with the community in asking for accountability and justice.

“We have had several team meetings and a player parent meeting about Monday’s tragedy, and I will continue to listen to, support and empathize with our student-athletes. My thoughts are with Mr. Floyd’s family and loved ones,” Fleck said.

Fleck appeared on ESPN's First Take on Monday morning to talk about how he is approaching Floyd's death and the aftermath with his program.

"Half of my players are African-American, half are Caucasian and white, and the world could learn a lot from how these young people are standing up, saying what they feel and making sure their voices are heard and as a head football coach, that’s our responsibility," Fleck said. "This week I’ve told our football team I’m a 39-year-old Caucasian, white male. I’m not your head football coach. You tell me, you call me, I’m here to listen. This is a time to listen and haven empathy."

The idea is to stay united as tensions rise in Minneapolis between the community and police department. Businesses have been destroyed or severely damaged, fires have raged and protests will continue for days to come. Minneapolis and St. Paul, as well as several surrounding communities, have implemented nightly curfews in an attempt to keep people safe during and after demonstrations.

Minnesota Athletic Director Mark Coyle released a statement Monday, saying he’s spent the past week listening to Gophers’ student-athletes and staff. He said athletes and staff have participated in peaceful protests in south Minneapolis, and he fully supports them.

“The death of George Floyd one week ago was unnecessary and senseless, and my heart goes out to Mr. Floyd’s family, friends and loved ones.

“I have spent the past week listening to our student-athletes and staff. They are hurting over the indefensible killing of Mr. Floyd. They are also committed to enacting change, and many of them have participated in the numerous peaceful protests and community and charitable efforts in the Twin Cities. I applaud them for using their voice and actions in a positive way.

“Our athletic department staff had an open forum on race and the killing of Mr. Floyd last week, and we are committed to continued discussion, communication and action. We will not let this movement end. United. Are. We,” Coyle said.

Fleck is in constant communication with his players and providing every resource they need to get through challenging times. Some players may come back to campus this week, with the NCAA allowing voluntary workouts for football and basketball athletes, providing they comply with local Covid-19 guidelines.