A week ago Saturday night became Sunday morning with hundreds of people standing in the middle of an interstate in St. Paul, with cities nationwide reeling from deaths of black men and police officers, with shattered lives and families, with confusion and anger.
Our nation and our community were full of people voicing strong opinions, but it was the actions of Minnesota Lynx players that thrust the sports world headlong into a budding fray.
A few hours before the freeway protest began, Lindsay Whalen, Maya Moore, Rebekkah Brunson and Seimone Augustus of the three-time WNBA champions stood on a stage in a media room at Target Center, wearing black shirts over their jerseys. “Change Starts With Us” read the front. On the back, support for two black men killed by police, Black Lives Matter and Dallas police officers gunned down in retaliation.
Photos of the event hit social media, where 10 reactions quickly became 100 and 100 became 1,000,000. That’s how it works now: shirts, then photos and video and tweets, then a streaking sound wave of reaction bolting across all forms of media. Faster, it seems, each tragedy.
The Lynx were everywhere, instantly, reaching ears and eyes that might not have ever heard of their basketball dynasty.
What about other athletes?
The Star Tribune asked nine people who have significantly touched Minnesota sports — from Hall of Famers to high school coaches and those in between — what they, personally, make of all this. Should athletes and others in sports use their voice? Or should they, to use a phrase repeated by some in recent days, “stick to sports”?
We thank them for sharing their personal thoughts and experiences.
Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson grew up in the Washington, D.C., area before graduating from Georgetown. Brunson was one of two Lynx captains to make a statement before last Saturday’s victory over Dallas. There, she shared a story of playing on a path with friends as a kid when two officers arrived and pointed their guns at them “for no apparent reason.” She’s not convinced stories like that will only live in the past.
On why the Lynx spoke out: “We felt like it was important for us to take advantage of the opportunity that we have in front of us to start to step toward creating some change. I think we have a platform we can use for beginning and starting to inspire growth in our community. We just tried to take advantage of the opportunity.”
On the reaction: “I don’t think we were surprised by it. It’s a very emotional time in our community. We were very excited by the voices that we heard. Coach [Cheryl Reeve] said it’s all about the dialogue that we can create. We were happy that people were speaking up to allow that dialogue to happen.”
On recent events: “I am scared for my brothers and sisters, my nieces and nephews, my future son or daughter. I am scared I can’t teach them to stand up for themselves, to be young, strong, proud people. That playing cowboys are only for other kids, that hoodies aren’t made for you or that asking the question ‘Why?’ can get you killed. That success and social growth will not save you. But if we take this time to see this is a human issue and speak out together, [we can] greatly decrease fear and create change.”
'LEAD PEOPLE, OFF THE FIELD'
Perhaps the most obvious example of a pro athlete in Minnesota speaking his or her mind: former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe. In his eight seasons in Minnesota (2005-2012), Kluwe set team records for punting, but he might be best remembered for what he supported — gay marriage and gay rights — and how vocal he was in doing so. Kluwe believes his advocacy played a role in the Vikings releasing him in 2013. The Vikings denied that was the case.
On advocacy: “It’s tough sometimes because of the way sports have become so corporate and such a big moneymaking venture. Owners of teams really don’t want athletes to say anything because there’s a risk you’ll alienate fans. But at the same time, athletes are human beings first and foremost.
“A lot of times in the locker room you hear about leadership. It’s always, ‘Be a team leader, be an example.’ I don’t think that necessarily has to be just on the field. You can lead people, off the field. You can be a role model to your society.”
On his personal advocacy: “I did it because it was the right thing to do. For me, it came down to: Would I want someone speaking out for me if the positions were reversed? The answer was yes.”
On reaction to his advocacy: “It was generally one of two camps. Either, ‘Good for you. Thanks for speaking out. We really appreciate it.’ Or, ‘You’re an athlete, shut up, go back and do your job.’ To me, that’s a symptom of the problems plaguing us as a society. Well, yeah, I am an athlete. That was my job. I went out and punted. But when I’m done punting, I’m also a human being. ... I should be interested in how people are treated because I have to live in that society. My children will have to live in that society.”
On recent events: “I think it really just highlights the need for us to change as a society and as a country. ... If we keep treating it as an isolated incident, then we’re just going to keep having the same problems over and over again.”
'EVERYONE HAS GUNS'
Bell, 76, is one of the all-time greatest Gophers football players, his list of honors including two-time All-America, Big Ten MVP and Outland Trophy winner given to the nation’s top interior lineman. He anchored the Gophers offensive and defensive lines for the school’s last national championship team in 1960, went on to become an NFL star with the Kansas City Chiefs and has a plaque in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
On using social media: “I try to stay away from that. I get on Facebook and say happy birthday to people, things like that.”
Bell’s platform of choice is public speaking. He makes numerous appearances, almost weekly, across the nation. And his talks often have a racial theme.
“This [racial] stuff has been going on for years, and some young people don’t realize that. When I came to Minnesota [in 1959], I wasn’t able to go to the University of North Carolina or Duke because those places were segregated. When I was in Shelby [N.C.], I couldn’t go into restaurants, unless they were all black. ... So I talk about history a lot. I talk about how I had to learn how to compete in this world, and how I approached things.”
On recent events: “Yeah, it’s shaken me. It’s dangerous, but I’ve been through [racial strife] before in my life. … The difference now is everyone has guns. All you’ve got to do is clap your hands, and someone will start shooting. Fourteen- and 15-year-old kids with guns in their hands get nervous. There has to be some regulation on guns.”
'IT'S THE LAND OF THE FREE'
Tyrone Carter grew up in Pompano Beach, Fla., and went through quite a change of surroundings upon arriving in Minnesota. “I came from all-black elementary, middle school, high school, and to go off to college where there’s only 5, 10 percent African-Americans,” he said. Carter went on to win All-America honors with the Gophers, and a Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He lives in the Twin Cities and trains athletes, from kids to NFL players. Carter is married with two school-aged children.
On advocacy: “I think it’s our obligation. They put that stigma on us of [being] a role model. We need to make sure we are tapping into that and using that platform. The world is watching what we’re doing. Everybody has a voice.”
On advocacy risks: “Back in the day there were certain issues you had to shy away from because they would become political. When you’re talking about race, discrimination, justice, freedom, I don’t care what a teammate, what a sponsor, what the team [might say], you’re going to defend your rights. It’s the land of the free. It’s America. If something is going on in the community that’s bad, we’ve got to stand up for community. We’ve got to get out and show our face.”
On reaction: “I get reaction all the time. More positive than negative. I stay away from any negativity. Anybody commenting or saying anything negative on my social media, I block them. I’m all about positive motivation. ... Now that I’m done [playing], I’m more vocal now. I’m more active. I want to make sure the kids have somebody that they can talk to and can understand and has their back.”
On recent events: “Oh, man. It’s been rough. I won’t say my life has changed, but when you see the unfairness that’s going on, of course the feelings are going to change. That changes the way you view things in life and the way you conduct yourself with your family. We’re trying to make sure our family continues to maximize its full potential.”
'BRING LIGHT TO THE ISSUE'
Richard Coffey, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, played for the Gophers before a brief stint with the Timberwolves. Coffey is raising three basketball players — Gophers freshman Amir, Northwestern star Nia and recently graduated Marist player Sydney — and gives them advice on how to interact with police. “I have a lot of friends who are police officers and I understand how hard their jobs are,” Richard said, adding that he takes extreme caution explaining his motions — saying, “I’m reaching for my ID now” — when he’s pulled over.
On advocacy: “I think if it’s important to you as a person, you should use whatever stage you’re on to bring light to that issue. Not just this issue but any issue. That’s part of being an American, that’s freedom of speech.
“But it’s really important to get across that just because I am passionate about one area doesn’t mean I’m not passionate or that I don’t care about the other area. People think it’s almost like a basketball game. You’re either for one side or the other — it’s not like that. You can have sympathy for the people that are dying from the shootings by policemen, but you can still care very deeply for policemen. …
“But I’m kind of a private guy. I don’t like the attention. I am affected by it, though.”
On advice to his children: “I just tell my kids, with that stuff you need to be smart. You need to make sure that what you’re putting out there is politically correct. Don’t say anything stupid. Voice your feelings, just don’t be stupid in doing it. It can definitely cause a storm.”
On recent events: “I am a black man and I have a black son, and it’s sad. You have to think about those things. If you tell people that you’re not thinking about those things, you’re lying. I think about my son and his interactions, if ever, with policemen … unfortunately, I’ve had those conversations with him more often than I would like to. ... What I tell them now is just, ‘Be careful, be smart. Make good choices.’ ”
'PEOPLE ARE LISTENING TO YOU'
Darrell Thompson made his name as a running back in Minnesota, first at Rochester’s John Marshall High School and then at the U — where he became the Gophers’ all-time rushing leader — before spending four years with the Green Bay Packers (1990-94). Thompson, who is the president of Bolder Options, a youth program in Minneapolis, and his wife have four kids.
On advocacy: “People are listening to you. You use it if you want to sell T-shirts or hats or tennis shoes, and then something important comes up like this. You’ve got to figure out how you want to use it and who you want to target. … You have to feel comfortable with it, you have to know what you’re saying and say something that sounds rational and thought-out, but I don’t have a problem with using that platform.”
On his personal advocacy: “I do it almost every day. I run a youth program [Bolder Options], and I was over at Ujamaa Place [a program in St. Paul for young black men] this week, and that was part of my message to the young men who were over there.
“For me, using my Facebook page and Twitter to broadcast my position … I have no problem talking or being part of a forum … but it’s tough. Going on my Facebook feed and composing a three-minute statement, that’s not me. Plus, it’s permanent, and you never can be right.”
On recent events: “I don’t know where it’s going to go. But I’m willing to be part of the dialogue. …
“I believe it’s important for young men to see somebody else like them who is not involved in a life of crime that is giving back to a community. That’s the most important piece to me. For someone to go on Facebook and talk about Black Lives Matters — well, I agree: Black lives, blue lives, they all matter. But I don’t really think [posting on Facebook] does anything. I’ve got to change the mind of one kid who is not going to fidget around in the car, or try to prove that he’s tough to his buddy in the back seat and then potentially have an incident.”
Charles Adams III
'I TRY TO BE PROACTIVE'
As a black Minneapolis police officer and the coach of the Minneapolis North football team, Charles Adams III has a unique perspective on the recent shootings in Baton Rouge and Falcon Heights, the attack on the Dallas Police Department, and the aftermath.
On advocacy and education: “As a coach, it’s important for you to educate kids but not try to persuade them to what you feel is right or wrong. Sometimes, I try to be proactive on situations that could be a problem when you see them in the media. You give them the facts, pinpoint certain things, and try to teach these kids life lessons so they grow up to be strong young men. It’s nice when you see it work.”
On recent events: “I definitely can see things on both sides. All the events we saw on the news, they touched my heart both ways. It was rough for me personally. The night of the Dallas shootings, I had a hard time sleeping. These recent events have opened my eyes. They make you think about things, both good and bad. Not doubting things, but thinking about why things are the way they are.”
'WE SHOULD SAY SOMETHING'
In a 15-year NFL career, Cris Carter’s longest stint with one team came with the Vikings (1990-2001), where he played in eight Pro Bowls, was named All-Pro twice and left as the franchise’s all-time leader in receptions (1,004), receiving yards (12,383) and touchdowns (110). More recently, he has worked as an analyst for HBO and ESPN.
On advocacy: “I think that if you do have a platform then you should be able to use it for whatever you believe in. If you’re an athlete, a musician, you have a platform given to you by your gift. I think there’s a certain amount of responsibility that comes with that.
“I think if affluent African-Americans don’t care about other African-Americans, then what is the point to the success? ... I believe it’s an obligation when you look at the type of resources we have and the platform. Yes, we should say something.”
On whether he’ll speak up: “I haven’t decided that yet, and I don’t have to make that decision.”
On athletes and social media: “Social media is out of control. … I think social media just waters down the effect. I just don’t think as far as the end result — [tweeting], does it help? I don’t think so. But as far as us being socially conscious, if you’re an African-American, it’s ... irresponsible to not use your voice.”
On recent events: “I check my [auto] registration on a regular basis now. I took a picture of my registration, my proof of insurance and almost tweeted it, but I didn’t want to be insensitive. I have kids, 22 and 25. I still have to reiterate with them the same things I told them when they were 15, 16: Make sure you have your paperwork handy, make sure you don’t have no outstanding tickets. Make sure you’re cooperative. … I’m glad the world is awakening to it, but this is what we go through. My son, he got stopped. He had dreadlocks and he had some little rims on his tires. The officer said he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. He handcuffed him and put him on the curb — in high school.”
Perhaps no local coach is as outspoken about speaking up as Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve. In her postgame comments Saturday, Reeve spoke of support for her players and their public stance.
On advocacy: “This is a group [of Lynx players] that is incredibly compassionate, intelligent, measured, responsible. They were very affected. We’re people. We also understand that what we do is more than sport. We’re blessed to have an opportunity to be a part of changing things, opening minds, changing minds, making the world a better place.”
On recent events: “First and foremost, I wanted them to know … [long pause to collect herself] ... as a white person, how sorry I was for what they experience daily in racial profiling. It’s deeply painful for all of them. All of them, every black person, has experienced that on some level. I wanted to let them know how painful it was for me to know that’s what goes on, and, as a white person, I wanted to help. Just create dialogue, be able to get some things out. ... The courage of this group, knowing it wasn’t necessarily going to be popular. It was very thoughtful.”
Staff writers Jim Paulsen, Amelia Rayno, Dennis Brackin and Chip Scoggins did the reporting and compiled these responses.