'Just be there to listen': Inside the Packers offensive line meeting on racism, need for reform
GREEN BAY - When the Green Bay Packers convened for meetings one week after George Floyd's death, the team pushed their playbooks aside.
The offensive linemen, like every other position group, typically would have gone through a 45-minute offseason install over Zoom. Instead, the coaching staff gave players an opportunity within their virtual rooms to have conversations about police brutality and other forms of systemic racism.
It was a space for black players to share with white teammates their experiences as black men in America.
“There was no nervousness,” right guard Billy Turner told PackersNews. “There was no thought that the conversation would go in a negative way by any means because I'm fairly close with a lot of the guys in the room. I know their personalities and I know the things that they enjoy, the things that they find passion in. Just getting to know those guys over the past year, it's very evident to me that they care about other people. It doesn't matter the color of your skin. It doesn't matter where you come from. We're all part of one team and one organization.”
Turner, a Minneapolis native, grew up not far away from the location where Floyd was killed in police custody. In that meeting with the offensive line, Turner sought to convey his outrage over Floyd’s death and describe what he’s experiencing while living in the center of Minneapolis’ protests this offseason.
“Obviously, George Floyd was murdered, but George Floyd was publicly executed in the middle of broad daylight in 2020,” Turner said. “The pressing issue at hand here is racism, of all kinds. And racism has existed in our country and been an issue for our country for some 400 years.
“Aside from that, the peaceful protests don't necessarily get portrayed by media in the correct way. So first and foremost, I kind of shared with them that there's a lot of good things that are happening here right now with these peaceful protests.
“But at the same time, there's also a lot of evil and negative things that are happening in these parts. There are buildings that were on fire and burned down and looted and the windows smashed and just completely destroyed just on my street corner."
Offensive tackle Yosh Nijman also addressed the group and spoke on other forms of racism that lead to police brutality. Trayvon Martin’s death in 2012 impacted how Nijman would dress and behave in public growing up. He shared his experiences actively avoiding falling into black “criminal” stereotypes as a means of self-protection.
“You can't wear hoods,” Nijman told PackersNews. “You can't show your tattoos. You can't wear a (white tank top). You can't put on your durag.
“In America, they say we're free. But how are you really free if you still have to deal with these things because the police can frame you or do something to you because of what you look like? Even if you might not feel like you're a criminal ... although I'm innocent, I can still feel like a criminal inside. Mentally, in a sense, that I can't do certain things in public or I can't go somewhere or I can't look a certain way being black.”
By sharing their experiences dealing with racism throughout their lifetimes and coping with recent events, Turner and Nijman showed their white teammates and coaches the systems at the root of police brutality.
“They were all just kind of like, f---, man. Like, damn,” Turner said. “A lot of them were kind of shocked. Yosh and Elgton (Jenkins), obviously being two guys of color, not as shocked because both of them have also dealt with certain things in their life when it comes to racism. All three of us have.
“Unfortunately, when you're not a man of color, when you are of the majority and you are of white America, you don't think about things that you don't have to deal with all the time, you know? So, I don't blame them for being kind of shocked and not necessarily realizing that these issues are still alive in our country and alive within our community today.”
Center Corey Linsley said he not only found Turner’s and Nijman’s accounts powerful, but also appreciated that they were willing to be vulnerable with the group.
“The most important thing about it was just the fact that they wanted to, No. 1, if someone felt like they didn't want to speak up, that's absolutely within their own right to,” Linsley told PackersNews. “But the fact that they felt strongly enough about the issues at hand, felt strongly enough and comfortable enough in a setting where it's a bunch of their ... it's more than a bunch of their coworkers. We don't aspire to just be coworkers. Teammates and brethren and this fraternity that we have. I think that's what we have in the O-line room.”
Offensive line coach Adam Stenavich also shared his experience growing up in Wisconsin and how he didn’t have the opportunity to surround himself with diverse cultures until he got to college, according to Nijman. The Packers did not make Stenavich available for comment.
“When I was listening to him speak, I'm trying to put myself in his shoes,” Nijman said. “We're trying to understand where he was coming from because his story is also important. Although a lot of other African American people will say well, our story is the most important, which I do believe, but as a people though, everyone should try to put each other in each other's shoes.”
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Not every offensive lineman was on the initial Zoom call, according to offensive tackle John Leglue. Stenavich relayed some of the messages shared in that meeting to a group on a separate call later in the day. Leglue, who joined the Packers late in the 2019 season as a rookie, quickly learned the importance of acceptance from leaders on the offensive line.
“The biggest thing that everybody in the offensive line room emphasizes is just be there to listen,” Leglue told PackersNews. “Even if we haven't personally endured (racism), some people have been oppressed in the past. The biggest thing is for us to listen and figure out what we can do as individuals to help out.”
Nijman spent the past week thinking about the ways he can take immediate action and work toward change. While he’s still processing and figuring out his next steps, he knows that continued dialogue can evoke the empathy necessary to galvanize non-black communities.
“I guess people should have more compassion in their hearts to want to know why these things are happening,” Nijman said. “Why is police brutality happening and all that stuff? Being a part of it also means that you feel something inside and you want to change what's going on around you in the sense that what's going on around America, if you care about America.”
Turner's and Nijman’s shared experiences prompted Linsley to express his thoughts on Twitter, a platform he tends to avoid. However, Turner’s encouragement in that meeting to speak out as athletes prompted Linsley to reflect on the power of his platform. The ideas he shared in his post were a culmination of his evolved understanding of racism, police brutality and peaceful protest over the past several years.
“When the whole Colin Kaepernick and kneeling for the anthem and everything was a big topic of discussion a few years ago, I truly was more focused on just playing and I had nothing against it, I just wanted to play my game and do the best that I could and if people wanted to protest, they could protest,” Linsley said. “I didn't have a problem with it. Whatever.
“But a huge factor for me in at least speaking up a little bit is my wife and I had our first son. I can't imagine somebody taking my life from my son because of me resisting arrest. I don't even know if (Floyd resisted arrest), it really doesn't matter. The fact that the government backs anybody, the state backing anybody being able to use lethal force without a lethal threat to them, it's completely wrong.”
Three days after that Monday meeting, the Packers released a video featuring head coach Matt LaFleur and numerous player leaders that called for social and policy reform. The team also pledged to donate $250,000 to causes across Wisconsin that support social justice and racial equality. President and CEO Mark Murphy announced he and his wife, Laurie, will match that donation.
The team is in the process of putting together a list of actionable items, including ensuring that every player is registered to vote, that can become catalysts for change. Turner hopes to lead his team in efforts to challenge systemic racism.
“We are all one as a human race and we fight for each other in our locker room,” Turner said. “So, it's important for us to use our platform to spread that knowledge and to spread the feelings that we have as one together in that locker room. Because hopefully, other people in the outside world will see it. Even if it is just one person, hopefully that one person is moved a situation, a comment, a picture, a post by Corey, by anyone in the locker room and it will make a difference in their life and they'll feel like they need to do the same thing."