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Inside Vikings' social justice approach: How players, owners are tackling 'drastic need for change'

Jori Epstein, USA TODAY
·8 min read
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Eric Kendricks didn’t hesitate.

“I’ll start,” the Vikings linebacker piped in from a video square of the Microsoft Teams call on Dec. 8.

The team's social justice committee meeting was in session.

The Vikings' partnership and $250,000 donation to All Square, a Minnesota nonprofit social enterprise investing in formerly incarcerated individuals, was going “really well,” Kendricks told an assembly including players, management and co-owners Zygi and Mark Wilf.

“Trying to combat the school-to-prison pipeline,” he explained. “Focusing in on housing and consumer credit issues that are happening with systematic injustice.”

The meeting, held two days after an overtime win against the Jaguars and five days before the Vikings visited the Buccaneers, barely referenced football. Rather, the Vikings’ social justice committee had convened to plan its next steps in combating social and racial inequities—including allocating the final $90,000 of the $1 million the Wilf family earmarked for players to direct in 2020.

This was the third straight season during which the team and ownership family had empowered players to direct a substantial social justice investment. Each season since 2018, approximately a dozen players have joined five to six calls from late spring through the season to thoughtfully engage on their community’s pressing issues and how best to combat each.

By last December's meeting, it was not unusual that Kendricks weighed in on All Square, running back Ameer Abdullah then querying the group on whether the fully male team had done enough to support women. No heads turned as safety Anthony Harris enlightened the group on an initiative to foster healthy relationships among youth or when outside linebacker Anthony Barr explained how they successfully secured housing for an impoverished single mother and her family. They were halfway, Barr added proudly, toward funding a second mother.

“Thanks to each and every one of you for your passion and really putting the time and efforts into making these decisions,” owner and president Mark Wilf told the group. “Really, helping guide us in making the world a better place.”

This is the ethos of the Vikings' social justice approach, where ownership invests in initiatives directly but also welcomes players into the conversation.

“Not everyone on every team can say they are having these conversations like this every week,” Kendricks told USA TODAY Sports by phone last week. “The reason why I like it the most is everyone is on the same level. Everyone’s speaking from an even playing field, it’s not like any hierarchy.

“Everyone’s listening to each other’s input and we’re getting work done.”

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The Minnesota Vikings' social justice committee has held several meetings over the years with ownership.
The Minnesota Vikings' social justice committee has held several meetings over the years with ownership.

Building the foundation

The Vikings' social justice efforts have progressed steadily since 2017. But the sense of urgency intensified last May when a Black man, George Floyd, died as a white police officer kneeled on his neck just blocks from the Vikings’ stadium.

Business and sports franchises across the country responded to racial injustice and police brutality. Teams in the Twin Cities area knew they would be looked to as an example.

“A lot of times when there’s a huge explosion, you’re not going to rush right into the epicenter of it and try to handle it because you may mishandle it,” Abdullah told USA TODAY Sports by phone last week. “It may be too hot. You try to clean it up too early, the debris may still be on fire.

“I think in the heat of that battle, us as the Minnesota Vikings handled it extremely well.”

In part, players say, that was a result of intentional and delicate planning. But perhaps more so, a swift and steady impact was feasible because the foundation had already been laid.

For the Wilfs, this was personal.

Mark Wilf remembers the “incredible raw emotion” of what the Vikings described last summer as “deep-seated social injustices.” He thought back to his parents’ broken childhoods surviving the Holocaust: his father’s family deported to a Siberian work camp and his mother shoveling food under a barn floor to where her own father was forced to hide. Still more family members were among the 6 million Jews the Nazis killed.

“Discrimination, bigotry, intolerance, they lead to consequences that are really life and death,” Wilf told USA TODAY Sports over Zoom last week. “My family experienced that almost 70 years ago in Europe, and we have to make sure the United States and the communities we’re in…have the kind of society that is tolerant.”

The Wilfs discussed that heritage openly with players, including on an April 2019 visit to Washington, D.C., when Mark Wilf, several Vikings players and 50 students of color from Minneapolis visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Vikings players and management also visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The first time Abdullah heard Wilf discuss family history, the running back thought to himself: “That showed a lot of vulnerability.”

“I couldn’t even imagine growing up in a home where that was part of the immediate trauma being healed from – how much you don’t trust certain things, how jaded you become toward certain systems that distract you from life,” Abdullah told USA TODAY Sports. “He was very vulnerable opening up.”

At the two museums in D.C., employees across the Vikings organization reckoned with systemic injustice and sources of violence, players’ memories of gun violence at football games shaking Wilf. The goal wasn’t to “trauma challenge,” as Abdullah describes comparing or qualifying, but to foster deeper understanding of each other’s backgrounds and the depths to which bigotry and hatred can devastate society.

“There’s tremendous pain involved, a sense of hurt and really a real commitment,” Wilf said of his players and coaches. “Passion that we have to be better.”

Those conversations informed the team’s response after Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020.

On June 10, the Wilf family announced a $5 million commitment to fighting hate, racism and inequality. $1 million was specifically to be directed by the social justice committee, which any interested player can join.

By late August, the Vikings had identified three key impact areas: voter education and registration; supporting the adoption of impactful educational curriculum on racism and Black history; and advocating for law enforcement and criminal justice reform. Before the season opener last September, the team announced a dozen community partners and concrete steps to impact their focus areas. Their Black history curriculum partnership, for example, expanded from 12 schools to 24. Harris and Barr had spoken in August with Minnesota high school coaches about the need to discuss issues of race and injustice.

Players appreciated the specificity and fastidiousness of the commitment, energy flowing regardless of whether police brutality canvassed that week’s headlines.

“There was a deep level of introspection that was done,” Abdullah said. “They came to us really, really wanting to change something. … Seeing a part of the country that they really couldn’t stand for any longer.”

Linebacker Eric Kendricks (left) is a leading voice for the Minnesota Vikings, not only on the field but also on the team's social justice committee.
Linebacker Eric Kendricks (left) is a leading voice for the Minnesota Vikings, not only on the field but also on the team's social justice committee.

‘Drastic need for change’

Sunday during a traffic stop, a white police officer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, fatally shot 20-year-old Daunte Wright, a Black man. The police chief, who, along with the officer, has since resigned, said he believed the officer intended to fire a Taser on Wright.

Again, local sports franchises were searching for words. NBA’s Timberwolves, MLB’s Twins and NHL’s Wild postponed their Monday games. The Vikings, out of season, issued a pointed statement.

“We are heartbroken by the senseless killing of Daunte Wright,” it read. “This avoidable situation is yet another tragic reminder of the drastic need for change in law enforcement training and police relations, specifically within the Black community.”

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Kendricks agreed.

“In a country where the color of your skin and your socioeconomic status may dictate your relationship to the system, which can mean life or death, we must begin to create alternative solutions to the problem,” he told USA TODAY Sports Tuesday night in a text message.

Players and ownership feel compelled to keep working toward those solutions.

Wilf says his parents engrained in him the value of collective responsibility, which he aims to impart now both in Vikings-related social justice efforts and as board chair of the 146-community Jewish Federations of North America, where he’s coordinated efforts including for pandemic relief and food insecurity during the last year.

“(My parents) lived in a world that was intolerant and no one looked out for them,” said Wilf, who will provide the opening remarks for the Federations' virtual Israel Independence Day event Thursday night. “We have to make sure here, like we do now, that we have a society where nobody is overlooked and there’s compassion.”

The social justice committee expects to reconvene soon in the offseason, likely in a late-April or May meeting after free agency and the draft. The Vikings and Wilf family have committed another $250,000 in funding for the players to direct in 2021, members of the roster eager to connect more deeply with a community in need of healing.

It’s a goal Kendricks elucidated in his closing remarks from the Dec. 8 social justice committee meeting, four months before the latest tragedy hit close to home.

“We can only confront things as they come,” Kendricks said then. “It’s important for us to keep searching and continuing to fight.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Minnesota Vikings, Wilf family committed to 'drastic need for change'