MINNEAPOLIS – Minneapolis became the epicenter of civil unrest earlier this year after George Floyd’s death, which resulted in the firing of four police officers and murder charges being filed against Derek Chauvin.
Demonstrations and rioting in Minneapolis followed, and the off-season got a lot busier for University of Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck. Already managing his players virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic shutting down spring football, life suddenly became much bigger than touchdowns and Big Ten titles.
Fleck got on his phone and called every single Gophers player after Floyd’s death. He organized a Zoom all with players’ parents, and later got the entire team together. Many of his players are Black, and Floyd’s death hit them each in a different way.
Fleck’s message to his team was of listening, and taking action against racism and social injustice. But how would they go about doing it? He got his answer from veteran defensive back Coney Durr.
“Everybody is saying action and empathy and listening, and I get all that. I said how are we going to act on this? What’s the No. 1 thing we need inside our program that’s going to be able to be a staple of our program from now to 100s of years from now that we can implement that is part of our culture? Coney Durr just simply said education,” Fleck said. “We need everyone in this room, no matter who you are, needs to be educated. I think that was an incredibly powerful statement, one word to describe what we all need.”
Durr, a redshirt senior from Louisiana studying business and marketing education who is Black, approached Fleck about an idea. He wanted the team to have difficult conversations about racism and social injustice, whether it be asking questions or speaking of their own experiences, in an environment free of judgment where everyone feels comfortable.
That sparked the idea of the HERE campaign: Help End Racism through Education.
“We just talked about educating people on past racism and how African Americans are put in those situations, how African Americans are in the situations they’re in today. Just having those conversations with guys that may not understand or may not have been taught those experiences or haven’t experienced that,” Durr said.
The team now has weekly HERE conversations. At one earlier this season, Rashod Bateman stood up and spoke about being in a mixed race relationship in high school. His girlfriend at the time was white, and her parents didn’t approve. They had to hide it, using caution about where and when they were seen together.
Others have spoken about being nervous or scared when pulled over by police. One wrong move, and they may not make it home alive.
The talks are still relatively new, but Durr says they’re bringing an already tight-knit team closer together.
“It’s different hearing something on TV than hearing it from a brother you’re around every day. Just getting those guys up to speed and educated on what’s really going on in America and why certain things are happening,” Durr said. “It’s been a blessing, I really respect Coach Fleck for allowing us to share our experiences and have that uncomfortable conversation with everybody.”
It’s about more than talking, they’re also taking action. Several players participated in peaceful protests this summer after Floyd’s death in south Minneapolis. Rashod Bateman changed his jersey number from 13 to 0, his way of demanding zero tolerance for racism.
Minnesota’s last visit to Maryland also featured a visit to the Lincoln Memorial for a history lesson. Fleck said they can’t do that this week ahead of Friday’s game for COVID-19 reasons, but his message has been consistent since Floyd’s death: Take action and use your platform, but do it in a positive way.
“It’s been a lot of fun to watch our players ask questions and get these lessons taught to them from our American history in a very non-biased way. These are the facts, this is what it was. Some of it is very hard, and very emotional to listen to. That’s the education that we can’t ignore,” Fleck said. “I think it’s really powerful to help end racism with education.”
Racism won’t just end overnight, but Durr and the Gophers are doing their part to take action and try to create change.