Wednesday evening 800-some influential business and civic leaders met at a fundraiser for Minneapolis-based Center for the American Experiment, a well-known conservative think tank. The dinner program, featuring a cerebral talk by a Fox News commentator, started with a military color-guard escorting a young woman to the podium to sing the national anthem and was capped off with a rousing auction for the use of a private suite at a local stadium, which fetched a high sum.
Over lunch Thursday 1200-plus influential women’s leaders met at a fundraiser for the Minneapolis YWCA. They heard moving talks by a teen girl who credits a committed mentor for supporting her after she had been abandoned by her parents, and a single mother who credits the YWCA for providing an embracing community her family has come to rely on. While she goes to college and work, her children attend the YWCA’s Early Childhood Education Program which was recently recognized as one of the top ten accredited programs in the country.
But perhaps the most stunning talk of the week occurred at a small gathering at Tom’s Drugstore in Minneapolis Thursday evening featuring star athletes who, when they aren’t filling expensive stadium seats, are quietly influencing younger men and boys.
The scene couldn’t have been more contrasted: six hulking black University of Minnesota football players who, along with the white University of Minnesota volleyball players and civic engagement students who invited them to the talk, sitting in a circle with cerebral educators from local universities and visiting scholars from South Africa and China.
As elderly educators applauded the athletes for showing up and taught them about the tough work of civil rights leaders and leader-athletes of the past, the players leaned in, listening closely.
The discussion was, by design, not scripted. None came with prepared notes. But when the young athletes spoke all were as articulate as the cerebral intellectuals.
The players spoke of the complicated culture that informs collegiate football. Of the disconnect between the consumer-driven institution of sports which entices them with hopes of NFL sized-salaries and spoils them things like plasma screen TVs and far better facilities than women’s or other teams get.
More significantly, they said they wanted to be recognized more for their substance and intelligence than their physical prowess and the public personas largely created for, not by, them. They talked of hidden pressures and sacrifices their families have endured so they can get an education.
“Many of us are the man in our house,” said one who had been raised by a single mother. “I worry about my sisters and mom everyday.” Another said: “When I came to college we lost our house,” to pay tuition. Yet another spoke of missing the largely black Atlanta, Georgia community he left for the largely white Minnesota institution he plays for.
They spoke with uncanny honesty about the stereotypes that diminish their aspirations and abilities with reductive cultural scripts that sum them up as either, in the words of one: “slaves” for heavily funded sports organizations or, as another put it, “thugs.” And of the pedestals they are propped on which suppress their full potentials to serve as productive citizens.
Not surprising, these poised young men are positioned by the university to share their gifts in community service efforts where they speak from podiums to audiences of students about the importance of putting studies before sports.
What was surprising was what the players do without being asked. When questioned if they personally mentor students, their answers demonstrated integrity and insight no floodlights can adequately capture.
Senior defensive back Marcus Singletary proudly explained how he informally mentors freshmen to teach them how to evolve from “boys to men,” while defensive lineman Brandon Kirksey smiled broadly. “You don’t know this,” Kirksey said to his teammate, “But I overheard you talking about “boys to men” in the locker room and I am doing it, too.” Another player piped in, “I am the product of a Boys to Men program in Chicago!”
These young men are changing far more then freshmen. An elderly professor who has long taught a popular American history course, tried to capture the point: “I’ve seen many students, but this is the first time I’ve seen black athletes speaking in an open and frank discussion.”
To which quarterback Marquis Gray, demonstrating his keen read of reality, responded by calling out his esteemed elders. Who—for all their experience—utterly underestimated his and his teammates’ wisdom.
When white female athlete Tabi Love (who is now at UCLA) suggested her black fellow athletes might have something to prove, he agreed. Addressing the assembled scholars, Gray noted their surprise at realizing the players’ intelligence: “As soon as we opened our mouths you guys were shocked.”
Their daring discourse proved powerful lessons: when people sit down in respectful dialogue with very different others long enough to discover the real, complex person behind faux cultural caricatures, superficialities can be surmounted and begin to breakdown the larger cycles that destabilize our culture.
These athlete-leaders showed star-leadership strengths. More compellingly, they proved that the most powerful influence can’t be bought or taught from a high-minded podium—but must rather be persistently practiced with real people.
And when it is, everyone wins.