GREEN BAY – The doors to Lambeau Field opened to Matt LaFleur this week after months away from the facility because of the coronavirus pandemic, but football wasn’t his priority.
It has been almost two weeks since George Floyd’s death in the custody of the Minneapolis Police Department. Two weeks of protesting. Two weeks of intense introspection.
For the Green Bay Packers, that meant shelving their virtual reality offseason training. Instead, their regular Zoom meetings became a place for social discussion, for empathy, for sharing past experiences and perspectives. It’s where the genesis of an almost two-minute video released Thursday pushing for social and policy reform against systemic racism and police brutality materialized.
Those meetings carried into early Friday, LaFleur said. He emerged Friday afternoon to address the media for 30 minutes, sharing what was learned in conversations with players.
“There’s a lot of guys who are really hurting right now,” LaFleur said, “and they’ve been hurting for years. Unfortunately we, as a society, haven’t been listening. I’m just trying to think for myself and things I could do to help, and I do think it starts with listening, but then we’re going to have to start coming up with an action plan.
“I’ve had a couple meetings today with some of our coaches, certainly have had many conversations with our players. I think we’re all kind of brainstorming right now and making sure we take the necessary steps to see some positive change.”
LaFleur, like many, said he watched the video of Floyd's death, which came while a Minneapolis police officer put a knee on his neck for almost nine minutes. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was arrested and charged with second-degree murder for Floyd’s death. Three accompanying officers were also charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder.
Each officer was fired the day after Floyd’s death. Protests intensified last week while prosecutors compiled evidence before presenting and then enhancing the charges.
LaFleur condemned the actions seen on video by the former Minneapolis police officers.
“When I saw that video,” LaFleur said, “it was appalling, man. It’s totally unacceptable. Here we are in 2020, and this stuff is still ongoing. Just really trying to listen to our players, to listen to some of my closest friends that have dealt with this stuff throughout their life, and trying to come up with ways to not only talk about it, but to be about it and create the changes that are needed in society.
“There’s been a lot of discussions. I’d say the majority of my time this last week, over the course of this last week, has been on other things, on the social injustice, on police brutality. I’ve had far more conversations in regards to those aspects of life instead of football.”
The Packers’ response began Thursday morning with the video that has been retweeted more than 15,000 times with 2 million views and pinned to the top of the team’s Twitter profile. LaFleur said the idea came from a meeting with his player leadership council. The players, he said, wanted to respond with a “more powerful” message than a standard statement.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers wrote a specific script for the video, LaFleur said. It was then recited by several players – a dozen appeared in the video – and LaFleur, leaving open the option to call an audible, improvising with a personal story.
“There was a lot of meaning behind it,” LaFleur said. “I was really proud of our guys. I thought it was exceptionally done. I thought the people in house that took all of our videos and spliced them together did an amazing job. I thought the video was extremely powerful.”
Later Thursday, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy announced the team will donate $250,000 to Wisconsin causes that support social justice and racial equality. Murphy said he and his wife, Laurie, will match with a separate, personal donation.
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But the team’s response could be ongoing. Many players across the league, including Packers receiver Davante Adams, have criticized the NFL for not being more forceful in their message against systemic racism, particularly during Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the 2016 season. LaFleur did not criticize the league when asked if the NFL needed to be more vocal, but he said his players were welcomed to protest in any way they desired, including during the national anthem.
“That’s not something that’s come up specifically,” LaFleur said. “I’m definitely looking forward to having those conversations with our players. But my mindset, and I think I can speak for our organization, is we’re going to support our players. We’re going to support them and what they want to do, provided that it’s peaceful. And we’ll always do that.”
In time, the Packers will shift their focus back to football. The challenges of this virtual offseason are something every team will have to overcome.
But that’s football.
Right now, the Packers are among those in society focusing on something bigger.
“I think these are conversations that have to happen,” LaFleur said. “I keep going back to the same things, but we’ve got to listen to our players and our coaches and to the rest of America and how we fix some of these systemic problems. I think right now, the football can take a back seat to that. I’ve got no problem. I feel really comfortable with where we are from a football standpoint.
“I’m sure as we move forward, there’s going to be a good mix of both.”
The Packers have signed guard Jon Runyan, a sixth-round draft pick out of Michigan. Runyan is the fourth 2020 draft pick the Packers have signed, joining offensive lineman Simon Stepaniak (sixth round), safety Vernon Scott (seventh round) and edge rusher Jonathan Garvin (seventh round). That leaves five picks to go: quarterback Jordan Love, running back A.J. Dillon, tight end Josiah Deguara, linebacker Kamal Martin and center Jake Hanson.