It’s been two painful weeks since George Floyd died face down in the street at the hands of Minneapolis police, just a few blocks from my childhood home. Given all that has transpired since then, it’s hard to fathom it’s only been that long. We’re at what many have called an inflection point in history – one that will hopefully result in lasting change.
Substantial change is necessary, but what does it mean for each of us individually? What can we each do to help attain true justice and equality? I’m on a quest for answers just like most of you. Sure, we can donate money to good causes and peacefully protest in the streets. However, one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve heard is that we should really start listening to the black community. For some, especially non-people of color, that means truly listening for the first time. It’s a reasonable first step.
Given their massive platforms, many athletes have been among the loudest voices crying out for change the past two weeks. That includes Minnesota Vikings stars like Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr, who shared tremendous messages via social media. This is not to suggest that athletes and coaches have a message any more important than your neighbor or friend. Let’s quell that criticism upfront. It’s just that professional athletes and other celebrities have huge audiences, so their voices carry far.
One quiet voice you might have missed, however, is that of former Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier. The soft-spoken Frazier is currently the defensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills. He met with the media on Thursday and addressed the issues head-on with the type of calm thoughtfulness we’ve come to expect from him. He spoke softly, as he always does, but came through loud and clear, calling this a “golden opportunity” for his players to speak out and act.
“When I talk with our players, I just express to them the importance of finding out what can I do to make things better?” Frazier said. “It’s so easy to point to what the problem is, but what can I as an individual do to make things better. What responsibility can I take?”
He went on to quote Mahatma Gandhi in telling his players, “’Be the change you want to see in this world.’ That can be us because of the platform that we have as athletes. Hopefully, our guys will get involved and we’ll stick together as a group and make a difference in this time.”
What’s clear is that this isn’t a time to sit on the proverbial sidelines and hope other people effect change. What can I do? What can you do? As an initial step, I’ve chosen to listen to Leslie and seek out others from whom I can learn (not just famous athletes) regardless of the size of their platform. In that spirit, I suggest viewing Frazier’s entire meeting with the media from Thursday on the Bills’ website. The audio is a little rough in places, but it’s worth your time.
Frazier’s message to his players may as well have been addressed to us all. Though we don’t all have the kind of massive platforms professional athletes have, we all have a responsibility to be part of the solution. If each of us acts, we can “bend the arc of the moral universe toward justice,” to borrow a famous quote from Martin Luther King Jr., and, going further back, Theodore Parker.
I was working for FoxSportsNorth.com when Frazier was named interim head coach of the Minnesota Vikings in 2010, replacing Brad Childress. At the end of the season, he was named the eighth head coach in Vikings history. In my brief time covering Frazier’s Vikings it was readily apparent he was pure class. He’s one of the nicest gentlemen I’ve encountered in any walk of life. I have nothing but respect for him. So, when he has something to say, I’ve chosen to pay close attention.
Again, it’s the first step.
Kendricks, Barr and others have been vocal in calling for many additional steps, specifically by the NFL.
Remember, as recently as 10 days before the death of George Floyd, league owners were discussing changes to the Rooney Rule that would “incentivize” minority hiring. Those proposals, which included teams moving up in the draft for hiring a person of color as a head coach or general manager, drew a lot of criticism and were subsequently tabled. There’s work to do. Whether it’s at the league level or team level, additional systemic changes are needed in the NFL. The league is a microcosm of the issues still facing this great country.
It should be noted that the Vikings organization has been progressive compared to most NFL teams. Frazier was their second black head coach. They hired Denny Green in 1992, making him the second black head coach in NFL history. More recently, Kevin Warren became the first black Chief Operating Officer in league history when he ascended to that position with the Vikings in 2015.
A few days after Kendricks, Barr and others began calling for change, and the day after Frazier met with the media, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell took to Twitter. He’d been listening to players and coaches from around the league and finally got the message.
Listening is one step. Learning and taking action comes next. I look forward to additional actions being taken by Goodell for a league comprised of 70 percent black players. Will any of the people who own NFL teams change their position on players kneeling during the National Anthem and admit that it’s done to protest police brutality of black people? Will Colin Kaepernick land an NFL job? These are some of the next steps.
With Frazier’s suggestions fresh in my mind, I made my way to 38th Street and Chicago Ave. in Minneapolis on Friday to pay my respects, to listen and to hopefully learn.
It was a picture-perfect afternoon, 78 degrees and not a cloud in the sky. As I approached the intersection that some have dubbed “George Floyd Square,” the first thing I noticed under the bright sunshine was the massive crowd of people… and then the music. A DJ was set up in the middle of Chicago Ave. and The O’Jays classic “Love Train” was blasting. People were dancing. It was beautiful.
Next, I noticed all the tents, a few for media, but most for vendors grilling hot dogs and burgers for good causes. Others sold flowers or t-shirts with pictures of George Floyd that said “I can’t breathe.” Many were just giving away bottles of water. I couldn’t take 20 steps without someone offering me a bottle of water. Maybe I looked dehydrated, I don’t know.
And then, juxtaposed with the fantastic music and dancing and summery aroma of burgers on the grill, there were the memorials to George Floyd. They were everywhere. Flowers of every color, drawings and solemn tributes adorned the street in front of Cup Foods. But it was the messages that hit hardest. Thousands of words leaped off their cardboard signs, sidewalks and asphalt to challenge, to scream at, and to plead with the reader, crying out for understanding, justice and change. I read as many as I could.
It was a jarring, powerful experience.
As I left the site of George Floyd’s murder — the epicenter of what feels like a real turning point — it seemed fitting that Prince’s “Housequake” was rumbling over the speakers. I knew that what had happened there had truly shaken this country.
I walked back down Chicago Ave. and stopped in front of my childhood home. The current owners had posted a “Black Lives Matter” sign above the front porch on which I used to play. It was the same front porch on which all my color crayons melted in the sun on another hot summer day, many, many years ago. The tears were flowing for a different reason this time.