Minnesota Vikings' Social Justice Committee Speaks From the Heart About Race, Reform

Photo Credit: Brad Rempel (USA Today Sports)

Andre Patterson turns 60 on Friday. He was born in 1960 in the heart of the Civil Rights movement, and the Vikings co-defensive coordinator says he’s observed mistreatment of African Americans for multiple generations — he was in Los Angeles during the Rodney King riots. But when George Floyd died in police custody on Memorial Day with video showing his knee under the neck of former officer Derek Chauvin, Patterson believed something was different.

The world’s overwhelming response would back that up.

“This has been going on my whole life,” Patterson said Thursday in an extended discussion between reporters, the Vikings’ social justice committee and members of their front office. “Is this one different? I’m going to say it’s different, and here’s why it’s different: Because through time, the Black community has been telling the world that this has been going on.

“And a lot of people didn’t want to believe that it was going on, that the person had to do something wrong to either get choked to death, or shot, or whatever. OK? But this is the reason why this one’s different: Because the whole world got to see life leave that man’s body. … Not only did they get to see him lose his life – they got to see it from start to finish. So that’s why you see the protests the way you do.”

The Vikings are one of many teams across the NFL to take action after Floyd’s death — and push for further action from the league as a whole.

Thus far, Vikings players have formed a college scholarship in George Floyd’s name to award to an African American student, team officials have met with the Minneapolis Police Department, and team ownership has pledged $5 million to social justice causes. The Vikings’ social justice committee, which was formed several years ago, has also been working with minority youth through the local group Project Success, as well as the nonprofit All Square, which helps formerly incarcerated individuals.

The team was conscientious of social justice in its community before Floyd was killed, but the incident on May 25 and subsequent protests worldwide have created the need for a more dynamic response and ample discussion on the topic of race. Eric Kendricks, a social justice committee member, asked the NFL on June 3 to take more specific action steps. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to Kendricks and other outspoken players with a statement apologizing for not listening sooner while lending his support to peaceful forms of protest.

“I woke up a few days after the incident, and I was super emotional, obviously frustrated,” Kendricks said. “These things have been just happening. For us to just ignore that was an issue for me. Me calling the NFL out, me putting that pressure on the league and doing that, using my platform, wasn’t just to apply pressure to them, it was to apply pressure for people around me, it was to apply pressure to myself.

“We all need to understand these issues that are going on in our country, we all need to not only educate ourselves further on these issues, we need to get out and vote.”

Was he satisfied with Goodell’s statement?

“That response was good,” Kendricks said. “That’s what we wanted, we wanted to be acknowledged.”

The coach and gM react

General manager Rick Spielman understands that he is a white man in a position of power within the country’s most popular sport.

But as the father of six adopted children — none of them white — Spielman has seen racial inequality up close.

“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,” Spielman said Thursday, at one point getting choked up. “But when they go out on their own, 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’ve stolen that car. My son actually had to call home 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. Why is there a white privilege world and why, when we go out on our own, we live in a totally different world and are looked at totally differently? It just tears me apart that we have a society that is still like that.”

Photo Credit: Chuck Cook (USA Today Sports)

Spielman said he held a tearful personnel meeting shortly after Floyd’s death where the team’s minority scouts opened up to white scouts about times they experienced racism, at times fearing for their life during a traffic stop that might seem routine to their white colleagues.

The NFL offseason to this point has been based on virtual meetings, but those meetings have taken on a different tone the past several weeks. Head coach Mike Zimmer gained respect from his locker room when he voiced his support for the team’s black players on a Zoom call just days after Floyd was killed.

When many players were kneeling during the National Anthem to protest police brutality, Zimmer had previously taken the stance that players should not kneel out of respect for the flag — comments for which quarterback Drew Brees was harshly criticized last week. While the team says it hasn’t discussed its approach to the National Anthem in 2020, Zimmer’s initial expression of support has helped unite the Vikings, even if they’re spread across the country.

“I think the biggest thing I took away from when Zim addressed the team was just his openness to discussion,” said social justice committee member Ameer Abdullah, who spoke eloquently and passionately throughout the forum.

“A lot of times when you’re the head coach, you don’t always have to hear your players out. You don’t always have to hear what they’ve got to say because what you say sometimes is felt and is administered throughout the team. But 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 because coming from Alabama, I grew up Muslim and black, so I was a double minority. I didn’t have a lot of people of the other color or other religion speaking for me, even when they didn’t understand my religion, even if they didn’t understand my background. So to have Zim come out and humble himself and say ‘I don’t understand, but I stand with you’ was powerful for me.”

One of Zimmer’s closest confidantes on the coaching staff is Patterson, who helped the head coach deliver the right message.

“The biggest thing I said to him was just speak from your heart,” Patterson said. “Tell them how you feel. His biggest thing is he didn’t want to say anything wrong, but he wanted to back the players and he wanted them to know that even though he didn’t know how they actually feel, that he was there for them – that his door was open.

“My conversation with him was, ‘Tell them how you feel. Tell them how you feel. They’re going to listen. There’s no right or wrong. The worst thing you can do is stay silent.'”

The next steps
Photo Credit: Kirby Lee (USA Today Sports)

As Abdullah said during Wednesday’s discussion: “Change doesn’t happen overnight.” The social justice committee members all echoed that education is one of the most important tools for combating racism.

“Before we can liberate ourselves from systems or reform systems, we have to reform ourselves internally,” Abdullah said. “You can’t just put a Band-Aid on wounds that are wide-open, and I think it’s more of a psychological war that a lot of us aren’t really realizing, that are passed down through our lineage and hereditary stories, from families.

“One thing I know we talked about internally was maybe hosting [through] our space with the Vikings, maybe our auditorium, to bring in officials, people from all walks of the community, to talk about these issues. To unclothe a lot of the internal things. Because who we are externally as people is predicated on who we are inside. And no matter how much you try to put paint over rusted metal, that rust is always going to burn through that paint, eventually.”

Within the organization, it’s been more difficult for players to connect without the everyday camaraderie experienced in the locker room, but Patterson has been adamant that teammates continue conversing about the hard subjects.

“We had a team meeting right after everything started to happen and one of the things that we encouraged the guys to do was talk to one another because if we were here that would be going on in our locker room,” Patterson said. “In the six years we’ve been here, we’ve gone through some pretty tough things as a football team, and we’ve gone through it together. I just want to make sure when this happened that our players did that even though we were spread out over the country.

“The biggest thing is when you keep all this trapped inside it just builds and builds and builds and you have an explosion. That’s one of the things we talked to the team about: Let’s do what we normally do even though we’re not together. Let’s get it off our chests, listen to one another, and I think the guys have been doing a great job with that.”

The conversations will surely continue over the coming months and years, inside and outside the locker room, perhaps surrounding the National Anthem. The Vikings realize that to create massive changes, it will take countless small steps along the way.

“I just think that it starts with a lot of dialogue from different perspectives,” said committee member Anthony Harris, “getting more informed about the different topics or the different directions that are being discussed and just informing ourselves and moving forward hand in hand for one human race.”

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