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Restarting Minneapolis School Sports Following Civil Unrest

By Nate Perry on March 09, 2021 hst Print

Although it will rightfully be remembered as a grisly, unmistakable example of the racism that still exists in America, for the residents of Minneapolis-St. Paul, the murder of George Floyd was only the beginning of a long, turbulent summer of 2020.

In a mixture of fear, horror and outrage, the metropolitan area exploded. Protests remained mostly peaceful during the day, but in many cases, boiled over into violence and destruction after sundown. Rioters clashed with law enforcement officers; hundreds of buildings incurred heavy vandalism, including arson; businesses were ransacked and looted; entire city blocks were reduced to rubble and broken glass. The Twin Cities were tearing at the seams.

Almost immediately, Antony Fisher looked inward. As district director of athletics for Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), he knew he had an effective platform to generate positive momentum.

“One could say I was maybe thinking small-minded, but what came to my mind was, ‘how will this impact athletics here in Minneapolis?’” he said. “‘What can I do to potentially change the narrative and get us back on track towards diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)?’ ‘How can I get us back on track?’”

Serving 10 high schools and a student population composed of almost two-thirds students of color, Fisher understood how George Floyd’s death had profoundly affected his young people, and that they needed a forum to voice their thoughts, emotions and concerns. At the invitation of Minneapolis South High School head football coach Rodney Lossow, Fisher and other athletic leaders in the district became engaged in a Zoom call where football student-athletes could do just that.

“There was fear, there was disappointment, there was anger,” said Fisher of the Zoom call. “I would ask the question to anyone, imagine if a house two houses down from you was on fire and your house could actually get burned in the process, and you had to move out? Or imagine if your street was not accessible and the only way for you to get home was to park way down the way and then have to walk, or that your school’s summer activities were shut down because all of this took place? Being a student-athlete and being used to having weight training at the school or being able to go shoot hoops at the local park if you wanted – that was gone.”

In addition to allowing kids to express their feelings, Fisher and other athletic leaders in the district provided further education on social justice issues, preached messages of positivity and empathy, and reassured attendees that everyone “will be stronger because of this.” Fisher said the success of the original Zoom call led to hosting additional online gatherings as a safe space for all MPS student-athletes to talk about social justice, diversity, equity and inclusion.

“This way, our Caucasian students and our Somali students can have a conversation on trying to educate one another about each other so that they don’t have that ‘wall of defense.’” Fisher said. “Or our African-American students can have conversations with our Hmong students so that wall isn’t as high and eventually doesn’t exist at all.”

While progress toward one of the school district’s major issues was being made in the virtual setting, getting Minneapolis student-athletes back on the playing fields for the fall was going to require a comprehensive COVID-19 mitigation plan.

Once the Minnesota State High School League received permission to begin all of its fall sports programs in late September, Fisher assembled his school athletic directors and tasked each of them with creating protocols for practices, games and transportation with one central goal in mind.

“One of the things we talked about right away was, ‘our kids need a season, and they need a complete season,’” Fisher said. “It would be a complete letdown to start a season and then have to end a season for whatever reason.”

To accomplish that goal in its urban environment, MPS enacted stricter safety practices than those in more rural areas of Minnesota. One example was the decision to not allow fans at fall sporting events, a measure that was not well-received by would-be spectators.

“We got a lot of scrutiny for that decision but what people don’t understand is that the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts are different,” Fisher said. “We can’t make the same decisions that our suburban counterpart schools can make. We have to look at it from the lens of those student-athletes and families who would be most impacted and are most vulnerable.”

Though it was certainly on the conservative end of the spectrum, Fisher’s decision certainly seemed to pay dividends. Playing games in empty facilities and using the NFHS Network as an alternative viewing option, not only did Minneapolis Public Schools complete all of its fall seasons but did so without a single team entering quarantine.

The unblemished COVID record did come to an end just after the new year, however, when 16 athletes were quarantined for 24 days after they had traced contact with a parent who had transported them prior to testing positive. Nonetheless, MPS has had sterling case numbers to this point, a feat Fisher also credits to his athletic directors.

“Our athletic directors did a really nice job of ‘leading from the middle,’” Fisher said. “There was a lot of monitoring, and our athletic directors would have to provide weekly reports for all of their individual sports that included whether they had a COVID case or if there was a kid who stayed home, but we made it happen. And we’re still making it happen. We’re reaching our two goals – health and safety and having a complete season.”

Very low infection rates also meant the maximum number of kids got to participate, giving them some sense of normalcy in their everyday lives and a much-needed break from the chaos that had ensued throughout the summer.

“Everything was virtual – coaching, team meetings and all of that – until the MSHSL allowed in-person contact,” Fisher said. “Once student-athletes were able to get back on the fields and back in gyms, it brought us back to normal; back to a time when we were allowed to go through drills and be in team huddles and engage with teammates.”

The slow-moving recovery process has now been underway for several months in Minneapolis and national efforts to address racial inequities, social injustice and diversity deficiencies are more intense than ever. Despite the work that has been done to achieve success in these areas, a long, difficult road still separates society from the end goals. A substantial portion of that road, in Fisher’s mind, can be traveled by learning to educate and understand one another.

“In my humble opinion, the only way that we’re going to turn the corner is if we educate ourselves and we’re willing to have those tough conversations,” he said. “If I don’t know anything about you, then when I see you on the street, the first thing that I have is my wall of defense. Once you know me and have an understanding of me and know a little bit about my background, that wall of defense doesn’t have to be sky-high; it can maybe be chest-high or waisthigh, and it gives us an opportunity to have that dialogue.”

Fisher has future endeavors planned for MSP student-athletes that include developing a Student Athletic Leadership Team and utilizing a partnership with Positive Coaching Alliance to further educate students on social justice issues. Positive Coaching Alliance currently sponsors a “Sports Can Battle Racism” program that Fisher plans to incorporate into his messaging to athletes over the next five months.

But perhaps the most encouraging future initiative comes from a request Fisher received this past fall, when a school district with a predominantly white student demographic reached out about playing a football game against a school from Minneapolis. Beyond the game, the school district expressed interest in holding a joint DEI workshop to help bridge the social gap between the two communities.

“We all know that athletics brings unity,” Fisher said. “We all know that we can get folks of all walks of life to march to the same beating drum on an athletic field or court. How do we do that in the other aspects of life?

“As long as we’re willing to educate one another and we understand that we can talk to each other in a respectful, educated manner, it puts kids in a position to learn those same things and deal with those types of diversity, equity and inclusion issues. What I’m hoping for is the more we talk, the more we can come to the same level of education and see eye-to-eye on things that we may not have been able to see eye-to-eye on in the past.”