‘It affects me’: Miami Dolphins’ Walt Aikens knows solutions with police aren’t so simple

Dolphins safety Walt Aikens, national spokesperson for the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities League, poses with PAL participants at the team training facility in Davie on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)

DAVIE — The more people want to boil down the anthem flap in the NFL to patriotism — are the players respectful of this country or not? — the more we see this issue is not, and probably never will be, so simple.

On Tuesday afternoon, Dolphins safety Walt Aikens walked into the team auditorium at the training facility to meet with the media. But he wasn’t alone. He was with a group of kids and Jeff Hood, CEO of the National PAL (Police Athletics/Activities League).

Aikens is not one of the kneelers. His connection to the larger issue can be traced to growing up in Charlotte, N.C., where he was a hotshot basketball player in PAL who also took a liking to football. Of course now we know which path life took Aikens, which is why PAL saw an opportunity to involve an NFL player in its program and Aikens saw an opportunity to give back. He accepted an invitation to become an official spokesperson for the organization.

“It was the best way to give back, me going back to these local communities and showing these kids that no matter where you are or where you’re from, you can always make it and there’s a positive way out of every situation,” Aikens said.

In a lot of ways, it’s the kind of story you can’t get enough of. But — going back to the original point — it’s also not so simple.

PAL’s stated goal is to bridge gaps between kids, police and communities. Anyone paying even the slightest attention knows how important, and how tenuous, that bridge looks today.

Which is why Walt Aikens, official spokesperson, has a bigger task on his hands than just encouraging kids to try real hard in school and in sports. Asked if kids today hit him with tough questions at a time when his peers are protesting social injustice, Aikens first said, “No, they’re kids.”

But he then went on to give you the impression kids are learning hard lessons younger and younger these days.

“And if they do know about it, I’m pretty open with my situation,” Aikens said, referring to a brush with the law in his younger days that could have been a trend if he let it. More on that in a minute, but first, it’s important to see the police through Aikens’ eyes. 

“Up until more recently, I’ve had a pretty good viewpoint of police,” Aikens said. “I’ve never been in any situation where it was just wrongfully an outburst, or something that was drastically crazy. My viewpoint was always good. Back in Charlotte, we have a nice group of police officers that a lot of them were my friends’ parents, so we grew up in that environment where I know his dad is a cop, but at the end of the day, that’s my friend’s pops. So, we always had a good relationship.”

Fully recognizing what he’d just said also raised a question, Aikens continued.

“When I said up until recently, I still don’t have a bad viewpoint. But we’ve seen what’s been going on in the media with police and people going on, beatings and all that stuff right now. It affects me. It affects me because I have police friends.”

Aikens cited the case of Brentley Vinson, a white officer in Charlotte who shot and killed an African-American man but was cleared by a prosecutor who provided evidence to rebut assertions that the deceased man had not been armed.

“He went to my college,” Aikens said of Vinson. “I know he’s a good dude and I know that he was doing what he needed to do in the line of duty. But it was kind of hard having mixed emotions coming from patrons and then coming from the police officers. It’s kind of hard when you have friends or family involved in that, but my viewpoint is still the same until otherwise.

“There are a lot of things you have to watch out for nowadays, especially being a young, black male in today’s society. It’s kind of tough. But at the same time, I just try to keep my nose clean, do what I need to do and get out of the way.”

The one time Aikens strayed from the straight and narrow involved a laptop he bought from a teammate. Aikens said he didn’t realize it was stolen, but regardless, the misdemeanor charge was enough for Illinois to dismiss him from the team, so he transferred to Liberty. Today, he uses that as a teaching tool when he talks to kids.

“I would just tell them we all make mistakes,” Aikens said. “I made a mistake my first ever time getting in trouble and it was my last. (I) didn’t make it a habit. Even me, I was in a nice, two-parent home and I made mistakes. I was young. I was a kid, but that didn’t describe my life. I didn’t let that define who I was as a person.

“So, when that happened, I just kept it moving. My pops told me when I initially got in trouble, he said, ‘What’s done is done.’ We’ve got to learn from it and move on. And I feel like that was the most impactful thing that you could say to me, because he wasn’t mad, he wasn’t yelling. He said, ‘I’m not mad or nothing. I’m more upset,’ and that really hit home like if you’re mad you can get over it, but if you’re upset, I felt like I let him down. I let my parents down. I just kept it moving. Like I said, I was hurt by it. I ultimately made the best out of my situation and I tell these kids that they can do the same in whatever situation they come from.”

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