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Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
In what has become part of their travel routine, the Minnesota Vikings left the team's Eden Prairie practice facility for Sunday's game in Baltimore under a police escort, with players and equipment already screened so they wouldn't have to go through normal airport security checkpoints.
Team officials say those procedures - common throughout the National Football League and paid for by the team - are necessary for security reasons.
Many law enforcement leaders and sports officials agree, but some also concede that such special treatment for athletes runs the risk of offending ordinary travelers, as when Delta Air Lines confirmed it had canceled a Thanksgiving weekend commercial flight and rescheduled passengers so that the University of Florida men's basketball team could use the plane and make it to a game.
More than most sports teams in Minnesota, the Vikings have long sought police escorts, generally paying around $300 for the service. From 2009 through August of this year, according to state records, the Vikings received State Patrol escorts 38 times and the city of Edina has recently taken over the job.
Vikings spokesman Lester Bagley said the police escorts are necessary because, once the team goes through TSA-regulated security at its Eden Prairie facility, "we are considered a 'sterile package' [and] we have a police escort to maintain that sterility." A State Patrol escort before the team's playoff game at Green Bay last January cost the Vikings $317.12, according to state records.
Before agreeing to provide escorts for the Vikings this summer, Edina Police Chief Jeff Long said he researched the issue to make sure the city was "not going to get accused" of providing "special treatments because they're athletes." Long said city police cars were not "escorting them at 90 miles an hour", and in some instances the escort did not move as fast as other traffic. He said only in some cases did the squad cars use their flashing lights.
"Personally, I'm not a huge Vikings fan," the police chief said. "I'm not awe-struck by any of these people."
A spokesman for Eden Prairie, where the Vikings' Winter Park facility is located, said the city turned down a Vikings request to provide police escorts because "we didn't want to set a precedent for supplying employment of that nature."
Twins and Wolves
Mike Herman, the Minnesota Twins' traveling secretary, said he sympathizes with those who have concerns. "I understand if people would be upset about it," said Herman, who said the Twins typically go through security at a special airport location and then go directly onto the tarmac. "[But] teams that have major, major superstar athletes, having them go through the airport might be an issue."
The Timberwolves and visiting NBA teams also often have airport screening done at Target Center. And at the University of Minnesota, the Gophers' football team goes through a security screening at the school before leaving for the airport and gets an escort by university police to the airport for away games. A spokesman said the football squad, because it has so many members, is the only team at the school with such an arrangement.
A State Patrol spokesman said the practice of giving sports teams private escorts is justified, and fits within state guidelines. While state policies give discretion on who can get a private escort - roughly 800 a year are approved - many are for such everyday needs as guiding trucks hauling oversized loads that include everything from heavy machinery to large boats.
The State Patrol does not, in general, escort private vehicles rushing an injured or sick person to a hospital, unless "as a last resort" in an "extreme emergency."
"We have 50 some-odd, very high profile people traveling in a group," State Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Roeske said of the Vikings' police escorts. "There's a concern that, without any security measures, that they'd be vulnerable."
Deputy Chief Mike Everson of the Metropolitan Airport Police said that, in general, only sports teams are regularly escorted on the airport tarmac.
"I can't think of anybody" else in the private sector, he said. "We're [involved] to provide the safety and security to make sure that everything goes smoothly."
Tone Coughlin, the race director for the NorthShore Inline Marathon, hires state troopers for traffic control for his annual race near Minnesota's North Shore.
But the special travel privileges for the Vikings and other sports teams, he acknowledged, may raise questions over "the way that we put these sports folks on a pedestal. It's a fine line."
This year, the State Patrol has provided private escorts in a wide assortment of instances: Crow Wing Power paid nearly $560 for troopers to help when the utility dropped two power lines across a roadway near Emily in May. National Yacht Transport, a Wisconsin company, paid $317 for troopers as a large boat was hauled to Lake Minnetonka in June.
Rod Hayden, the owner of Hayden's House Haulers in Vergas, said he paid for state troopers in part because "the public respects them a lot more" than private company escorts.
He said he was unaware of the escorts for the Vikings, but joked: "We're up here in central Minnesota, and we don't have any sports teams that are that important."
Mike Kaszuba · 612-673-4388