Matthew Coller is an experienced football writer who covered the Vikings for 1500ESPN and Skor North for four years. He is now writing a weekly Vikings column for Bring Me The News, and you can find more of his work at Purple Insider.
During the height of the Colin Kaepernick debate, the Minnesota Vikings linked arms on the sideline. Behind the scenes, one player said he would have liked to have done more but he didn’t feel comfortable raising his voice.
“I can’t be a distraction,” said the player, whose contract was up following that year.
Things have changed a lot since then. In hindsight we can see now that Kaepernick’s actions broke the dam of athletes speaking out about social issues.
The last four years have signaled an end to players sticking to sports, whether it has been in the form of kneeling for the anthem to show solidarity with Kaepernick’s stance against police violence or pushing for conversations with leaders or ramping up funding for community efforts or athletes simply telling stories of inequality.
Dozens of athletes have made organized efforts for change. Former receiver Anquan Boldin and safety Malcolm Jenkins formed the “Players Coalition” in 2017 with the goal of “making an impact on social justice and racial equality at the federal, state and local levels through advocacy, awareness, education and allocation of resources.”
In the days following the death of George Floyd, more athletes than ever have stepped up to the mic to make their voices heard and headed to social media in order to raise money for causes that support everything from black-owned businesses to protesters to campaigns to raise awareness of racial inequality.
The same Vikings player who was afraid to be a distraction in 2016 has now been using his social media to share social commentary from other athletes and viral videos of excessive force during protests.
In the past there may have been a strong sentiment for athletes to “shut up and dribble” but the more that players speak their minds, the more it becomes clear that they have better perspective, more thoughtful comments and better solutions than many of the people in leadership positions.
After the NFL released a statement regarding George Floyd, Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks went to his Instagram and Twitter to demand actual measures taken by North America’s most popular and lucrative league. Kendricks wrote:
“What actual steps are you taking to support the fight for justice and system reform? 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.”
“You can’t bring in people to teach us how we should interact with police but not work toward changing the behavior of police themselves.”
Vikings players saw one of their teammates become a victim of police brutality. Defensive tackle Tom Johnson was tased and pepper sprayed in 2014 by two off-duty officers after he refused to stop videotaping them with his phone. He was accused of trespassing and disorderly conduct but was found not guilty. Johnson won a $475,000 settlement recently after filing suit against the city of Minneapolis in 2016.
Still back when Kaepernick first started kneeling, teams didn’t know how to react. The Vikings linked arms before a game. Some teams supported players kneeling and others pressed hard back against them. Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made it clear he wanted to “respect the flag.”
No matter how many times players said that the protest wasn’t about the flag -- it was about eliminating the type of violence that led to George Floyd’s death -- or how many times it was repeated that a former Green Beret gave him the idea, the message did not get through the noise of Kaepernick’s actions becoming a case of whose-side-are-you-on issue.
This week we saw just how much things have changed when New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees made a comment about respecting the flag and his teammates wasted no time jumping to social media to help him better understand the issues at hand. Denver Broncos head coach Vic Fangio commented that the NFL didn’t have any issues with racism. Again he was quickly corrected by his players and issued an apology.
Now teams seem to be better equipped to highlight their players’ voices. The Los Angeles Chargers put out a powerful video showing their players standing against inequality and the Vikings published a statement from Zimmer saying, “peaceful protests can help bring change.”
The team has been retweeting its players, including running back Alexander Mattison asking, “In a country where many see me as a THREAT... others, an inspiration, which do you see?”
Defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo talked with NBC Sports Chicago about his decision to join peaceful protests in Minneapolis and mentioned that he’s received support from Vikings ownership and acknowledgement from Zimmer that the experiences of young black men and their white coaches can be very different.
“They've done a remarkable job,” Odenigbo said. “The Wilf family, our owners, they're Jewish, so they've obviously gone through their discrimination through the Holocaust. So from that standpoint, they did a really good job of talking with us and empathizing with us, saying, ‘What happened is not okay. We're happy to lend our support.’ So it was pretty awesome to hear from the coaches. (Head coach Mike) Zimmer just kind of spoke on the fact that it's hard for him to relate to us at times, just the fact that he's never gone through this.”
Odenigbo suggested that we work to better learn black history and join in the voices that speak out against racism.
“I really promote or recommend that it's OK to speak up, what happened was wrong and it shouldn't happen again,” he said.
When Kaepernick started kneeling in 2016, Odenigbo was a senior at Northwestern. He’s only been privy to an NFL world of players who have been pushing for it to be OK to speak up.
Now it’s on us to listen.