Randall Smith stood on a perch high above the field inside U.S. Bank Stadium. He had just received instructions to sound the Gjallarhorn right before kickoff of the Vikings game against Jacksonville in December.
Smith took a moment to soak it all in. At one time incarcerated, he has plans to start a mobile car detailing business, with financial support from the Vikings. And here he was, being honored by them. Several players wore custom cleats that day, highlighting a nonprofit called All Square, which draws its name from the belief that Smith and others are even-up with society after serving their time.
"I'm almost at a loss for words," said the 41-year-old Smith. "I just think about the experiences that many have to go through and don't have that voice to speak out for themselves."
Smith's next step in launching his business is to apply for funding from a $250,000 donation the Vikings made to All Square. It's part of the team's $5 million pledge, made just days after George Floyd was killed while in police custody, to combat systemic racism and social injustice.
Nearly eight months later, the Vikings have distributed $1 million of their commitment to various causes, including scholarships to high school students and African American curriculum in schools.
Twins ownership, which pledged $25 million from the Pohlad Family Foundation on the same day of the Vikings' announcement, has spent $3 million so far. Most has gone to help clean up Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods damaged in riots last summer.
Combined with commitments by the Timberwolves and the Wild and Matt Dumba, local teams publicly pledged more than $40 million combined in the days after Floyd's death.
“[Matt Dumba] really led with his values and then put money behind it and he brought along his organization. That's such a model for other folks about how you can use your position in the community to really inspire other people and to stand up for what you believe”
About $5 million has been spent to date. The Twins and Vikings see the rest of their pledges being disbursed within five years.
The first wave of funding has reached dozens of programs in what organizations label a more aggressive commitment — in monetary support and athlete involvement — than was evident before Floyd's death.
Real and raw emotion
Recipients of that funding sense more urgency now and a new desire from pro sports officials to create genuine relationships that go deeper than giving efforts in the past.
"It's the most real I have seen our teams be," said Chanda Smith Baker, the chief impact officer of the Minneapolis Foundation. "It is not politically produced. It didn't feel produced. It felt like raw emotion, interest and willingness."
The foundation, which manages $900 million in assets and distributed $119 million in grants in 2020, worked directly with the Twins, Timberwolves, Lynx and Vikings in the wake of Floyd's killing.
While charitable support in the community is nothing new for these teams, franchise leaders uniformly acknowledge that Floyd's death changed something fundamental inside their organizations. That change extended into charitable giving and examining institutional racism in a state where every team owner and head coach is white.
For Smith Baker, the visceral nature of the video of Floyd being killed at 38th Street and Chicago Avenue on Memorial Day pierced a veil of deniability about deaths involving Black men and police officers in Minnesota.
"People were so appalled and despite past incidents — whether it was with Philando Castile or Jamar Clark or Thurman Blevins or others that we have seen locally — this did resonate differently," she said. "And for whatever reason, it was more clear on the gravity of the issue and the concern that we should have collectively as a community."
Vikings owners Zygi and Mark Wilf allocated the first $1 million of their commitment to the team's Social Justice Committee, a group made up of players, coaches and staff members. Their task: Funnel the money to causes meaningful to them.
Wolves owner Glen Taylor, who also owns the Lynx and the Star Tribune, committed $1 million annually over the next 10 years to a newly created NBA Foundation, with the league's other 29 team owners making the same contributions. Focusing on Black communities, the foundation will provide grants to organizations that offer mentoring, skills training and job opportunities.
The Wild and the NHL gave matching $50,000 donations to Dumba's personal pledge of $100,000 to the Lake Street Council to help businesses rebuild after the riots. Owner Craig Leipold and the club also made matching $25,000 donations to We Love St. Paul to help rebuild the Midway.
Later in the year the Twins, separate from the Pohlad Foundation, gave $380,000 to 26 nonprofit organizations focused on education and youth development.
Those who manage when and how the money gets distributed vow to be thoughtful but move expeditiously with their timeline.
"It's not a situation of a promotional [campaign] and we'll see you in 10 years,'' Mark Wilf said. "That's not how it works."
Listening without agenda
The Pohlad Foundation, with more than $20 million left from its initial pledge, plans one phase of its giving to focus on what it calls "police reimagining.'' The topic has gained much attention and criticism amid calls in Minneapolis and elsewhere to defund and reform policing.
"Transformational change does not happen overnight," said Susan Bass Roberts, the foundation's vice president and executive director. "It is going to take deep understanding and deep listening in the community to really understand what our best role is in that space. We're not going to boil the ocean."
Bass Roberts said the foundation is still learning about what "police transformation" looks like in conversations with law enforcement, elected officials and people impacted by the criminal justice system.
"It would have been really irresponsible of us to come out and just start giving away $25 million when we had no real understanding of the police or racial justice issues or anything like that," she said.
For the first time in its 30-year history, the Pohlad Foundation included community members on its board when it created a racial justice committee that will vote on grants and help set strategy, Bass Roberts said.
In that sense, community organizations have found — and expect — that their partnerships with sports teams go much deeper than PR snapshots. The money is obviously vital, but they are establishing more emotional investment as well.
Emily Hunt Turner started the All Square nonprofit in 2016 to help remove barriers for formerly incarcerated people re-entering society. The former civil rights attorney said the Vikings vetted her organization thoroughly before investing $250,000 in September to support a new program that was created by Randall Smith and other participants to fund business ventures.
"They have listened," Hunt Turner said. "They haven't come in with an agenda. They've built real relationships. There's no helicoptering in for a photo-op and then they bounce."
One way the Vikings have sought those real relationships is by letting players take the lead on efforts they believe will bring change.
The team's social justice committee includes players, co-defensive coordinator Andre Patterson, General Manager Rick Spielman, coach Mike Zimmer and other key staff.
“It's the most real I have seen our teams be. It is not politically produced. It didn't feel produced. It felt like raw emotion, interest and willingness.”
The Wilfs gave the committee $250,000 in both 2018 and 2019 to distribute to organizations that matter most to members on it. The Wilfs increased that allocation to $1 million this year after Floyd's death.
"Emotion was so raw and it was so powerful," Mark Wilf said. "The players really leaned into this. Some of them have had really profound experiences of witnessing social injustice or discrimination or even themselves experiencing it."
Empowering players represents a shift in the traditional model, according to people who work in philanthropy. Athletes feel more comfortable using their platform to speak out on important issues, and owners are listening and providing support, both emotional and financial.
"It means a lot more to have that empowerment because [the Wilfs] are involved with the decisions," Vikings All-Pro linebacker Eric Kendricks said. "It hasn't really just been a check that's been written. You know, 'Here, do what you guys want with it.' It's been a collaborative effort through the entire Vikings organization."
Kendricks, who is passionate about criminal justice reform, has been involved with All Square for several years. He has become friends with participants — known as fellows — including Smith, who received a phone message at work one day asking him to call "Eric." Smith returned the call and was shocked to hear Kendricks on the other end.
The money donated will go to program graduates starting their own businesses with guidance from All Square's team. Kendricks could end up on the committee that reviews applications and determines funding for each new business.
"To ultimately cut a check to the recipients is going to be the best day of our lives," Hunt Turner said.
While the Vikings have helped to enable their players' activism, the Wild followed the lead of one of its players, Dumba, who started a fundraising campaign to aid construction efforts in damaged areas.
"The teams were allowing for the players to get out in front of an issue in which they were suppressing them in the past," Smith Baker said. "Well, once that gets out of the bag, I don't know how you put it back in."
Allison Sharkey, executive director of the Lake Street Council, said the early involvement of local sports teams — particularly Dumba's donation and visibility — sparked a viral grassroots fundraising movement that helped the organization to provide more than $5 million in grants to 325 businesses.
"It was those initial contributions at a larger level that made everybody else take notice and say, 'Oh, wow, Lake Street needs support. I'm going to give too,' " Sharkey said. "So it was really critical for helping jump-start the donations."
Sharkey said she was impressed by how powerfully Dumba spoke about the impact Floyd's death had on him.
"He really led with his values and then put money behind it and he brought along his organization," Sharkey said. "That's such a model for other folks about how you can use your position in the community to really inspire other people and to stand up for what you believe."
Building on activism
In addition to Taylor's $1 million a year for the next 10 years to the NBA Foundation, the Wolves and Lynx also gave an unspecified amount of money to the Minneapolis Foundation. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve and Wolves coach Ryan Saunders joined the foundation's Fund for Safe Communities committee to help decide where that donation and other money will go.
For Reeve, the effort comes four years after Lynx players wore shirts that read "Change Starts With Us'' after the police killings of Castile and Alton Sterling. The shirts also acknowledged five police officers killed in Dallas during social unrest that year. The team's public stance led four off-duty Minneapolis police officers to walk off the job as security guards at a Lynx game at Target Center.
"We didn't necessarily know how to dive into the work and do what was necessary [years ago]," Reeve said. "So I think we learned from that, that we needed to do much more."
Reeve said the committee is still organizing how to distribute financial help and to whom.
"I don't want this just to be something that's splashy," she said. "I want to know that we are serious about making change and following through and not just making a news release for our organization."
The Twins have a history of charitable involvement through the Twins Community Fund. But team President Dave St. Peter acknowledged that Floyd's killing "accelerated our work and brought an increased level of focus and responsibility to the work."
He added: "It isn't public relations. It's trying to reach out to organizations that have a need and that ultimately, in our minds, can have the most impact on the community."
The team's $380,000 initiative in mid-November targeted more than two dozen nonprofits aimed at closing racial and economic gaps in education and youth development.
One of those organizations is ACES, an after-school program seeking to reduce the achievement gap in math and social-emotional learning for students in grades 4-8. The COVID-19 pandemic has made its work especially challenging.
ACES executive director Christina Saunders said the Twins increased the amount that they typically give to her program annually. That money is being used to buy supplies for their academic tutors and students to aid distance learning.
"It allows us to continue that work and not be really stressed about fundraising right now," Saunders said. "I'm really grateful."
While the teams' money pushes out externally, work internally continues as white coaches, players and executives try to understand the societal structures that built an unjust reality for their co-workers of color.
“It's not a situation of a promotional [campaign] and we'll see you in 10 years. That's not how it works.”
Floyd's death caused teams to conduct self-audits in how their organizations handle complex issues involving race. The Twins removed the statue of founding owner Calvin Griffith in June over racist statements he made in 1978. The Wolves and Lynx led voter registration drives around the Twin Cities.
Making "systemic, long-term impact'' is the goal, Mark Wilf said.
Said Smith Baker of the Minneapolis Foundation, "I'm sitting here thinking about just the number of African American leaders that are players, that are leading within our sports teams, our companies, our corporations that have not felt heard or seen on these issues. You watch that come out. I think now that that is activated."