When Rashod Bateman heard of George Floyd’s killing on a south Minneapolis street last week, another black person’s death in police custody, the Gophers receiver’s first thought: “Here we go again.” For tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford: “Not really shocking.”
Seeing a white officer kneel on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes brought back what receiver Seth Green understood at 19 years old, cuffed and held at gunpoint outside the Dinkytown McDonald’s for fitting a description from a recent burglary: “It wasn’t a matter of if. It was a matter of when.”
Gophers radio broadcaster and former star running back Darrell Thompson had the same tearful conversation with his sons, including Gophers receiver True Thompson, as his father had with him: “When I was a kid, I asked my dad, ‘Why do people hate me because I’m black?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ And I had to say the same thing to my kids.”
Many former and current Gophers football players have grown up accepting racism as commonplace. But in the wake of Floyd’s death, they’ve decided now is the time to say: enough.
“There’s a lot of times in my life where I kind of ignored racism and didn’t stand up for it because it was normal for me,” Bateman said, referencing how he used to alter the way he dressed, cover up his tattoos, not take his white high school girlfriend out in public because of her disapproving family. “… When I first said that I wanted to be proactive and spread awareness, I just sat down, I came in my room by myself, and I just started taking notes on what I can do.”
A day after Floyd’s killing, Bateman posted a tweet about how “no matter the color, we are all one.” He’s since encouraged people to purchase a sweatshirt that will benefit Floyd’s family. He attended a small protest on campus, admittedly scared to join the larger marches in the city because as a black man, he’s nervous how the police would react.
“There’s a lot of times in my life where I kind of ignored racism and didn’t stand up for it because it was normal for me”
Spann-Ford and Green marched through downtown Minneapolis on Sunday, kneeling for nine minutes on the Hennepin Avenue bridge, with Green’s knee throbbing on the concrete as he reflected on how long Floyd suffered. Green, who also participated in last Friday’s protest, has been to 38th and Chicago where Floyd died four times. He’s donated food and household supplies, helped clean up south Minneapolis after riots and looting destroyed parts of the neighborhood.
The Gophers took several days off from football activities, instead having team conversations about what had happened. Coach P.J. Fleck, after first talking with his players, posted a statement on social media and spoke to ESPN and local radio, calling Floyd’s death “indefensible” and calling for “accountability.”
Bateman said of all the tragedy that has ensued in the past weeks, one of the positives was how this brought his team even closer together. Spann-Ford said everyone from the training staff to athletic director Mark Coyle has checked in and shown support. Green said his non-black teammates and friends have been willing to “sit and listen.”
“That way, they can have a better understanding of not only the system that is oppressing the black community,” Green said, “but also the personal experiences that black people that you may be close to go through every single day, that you don’t have to think about because of the white privilege that you have.”
Spann-Ford found a moment of beauty in the darkness as well, when he was one of thousands, including other former and current Gophers athletes, at a standstill on the 35W bridge this past Sunday.
“It was really powerful to me, seeing a highway that I’m just used to coming to school on, seeing it filled with people,” Spann-Ford said. “… That we could all gather in a peaceful protest and show our voices to everyone.”
Thompson, Spann-Ford and Green are all Minnesota natives, and Floyd’s death felt personal because it happened in their home state. Bateman is from Georgia, but has found in Minnesota a place he feels welcome, a place he feels “free.”
“It feels so good,” Bateman said. “But now my job is to help others who want the same thing for their life.”
The Gophers players are already discussing what more they can do with their platforms as Division I athletes. They don’t want the dialogue to stop after a social media post, with empty promises never fulfilled.
“No matter what we do, no matter how many white people support blacks, no matter how many blacks stand up for what’s going to happen, there’s still no guarantees that anything is going to change,” Bateman said. “… But actions will always speak louder than words, in my opinion. And I guess we will see what’s going to happen moving forward.”
They’re hoping to do their part to ensure it’s not history repeating.