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Browns, who visit Bucs this week, take a courageous step toward social change

Browns players kneel as others stand to support their circle during the national anthem before Monday night's preseason game against the Giants. [Associated Press]
Browns players kneel as others stand to support their circle during the national anthem before Monday night's preseason game against the Giants. [Associated Press]
Published Aug. 23, 2017

CLEVELAND — The laughingstock of the league during a 1-15 season in 2016, the Browns took a dramatic step forward Monday night.

Staging the largest national anthem protest in the NFL in the past two seasons, Browns players made a statement on unity and the need to eliminate hate in the world. In doing so, it might also have been a galvanizing moment for a team fighting for relevance.

Some participants were spurred by troubling incidents like the deadly clash between white nationalists and counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Va., on Aug. 12. Others felt the need to support their peers, like unemployed quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett and Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who have taken stances against social injustice and police brutality since the start of last season.

The Browns rallied to the cause of social activism that became the trademark of the franchise's most revered alumnus, running back Jim Brown, who attended the preseason game against the Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium.

They also demonstrated what coach Hue Jackson called "a brotherhood" within the team, a growing bond that will be needed as they try to claw back to respectability.

Although told about it ahead of time, Jackson didn't sound in favor of the decision of a dozen players to kneel in a circle as linebacker Christian Kirksey led a prayer for the country during the anthem. They were surrounded by five more, each putting a hand on a teammate's shoulder.

Judging by the response on social media, Jackson isn't the only one. Many found the players' actions disrespectful to the flag, the country and the military. Some vowed never to watch or attend another Browns game.

One can only wonder if Jackson fears the distraction of the backlash more than he disagrees with his players' purpose. There also could be economic ramifications in terms of ticket sales, which might have been the reason the Browns' halftime statement on the protest came from an unnamed spokesperson, although it was approved by some at the top.

"As an organization, we have a profound respect for our country's National Anthem, flag and the servicemen and servicewomen in the United States and abroad. We feel it's important for our team to join in this great tradition and special moment of recognition, at the same time we also respect the great liberties afforded by our country, including the freedom of personal expression," the prepared statement said.

Jackson delivered virtually the same message Thursday after saying Aug. 14 that he hoped the Browns would not elect to sit or kneel during the anthem.

Despite the feelings of their coach, the Browns had talked for days about the need to do something. It wasn't just Charlottesville and President Donald Trump's ensuing remarks. On Friday, the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP called for a boycott of the NFL if Kaepernick, perceived as being blackballed for his views, is not afforded the opportunity to continue his career.

Browns cornerback Jason McCourty said he stepped out of the shower into a group discussion one day last week.

The method the Browns chose — a prayer circle — seemed the most tasteful and most respectful option. To me, it carried no defiant connotation like a fist in the air, even though racial overtones were there. Among the Browns kneeling was tight end Seth DeValve, a white player.

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Afterward, DeValve explained that his children will be of mixed race and he wants to do everything he can "to raise them in a better environment than we have right now." He became friends with wife Erica, who is African-American, through a campus ministry they both served in at Princeton; they were married June 17.

Talking to the Browns on Monday night, all sounded sincere and passionate about prompting social change. They were aware that their protest was a bold move to the forefront of professional sports activism and wouldn't be embraced by all. Some prayed facing the Browns bench before it was time for the team to line up for the anthem.

"People think that when you reach a certain level of stature or status in life that you're unaffected by everything that goes on in the world," rookie safety Jabrill Peppers said. "We just wanted to show everybody that it starts with us who have that platform to be able to make statements without actually saying anything. We just band together because we've got to unite in some way."

Those who thought the act still said too much are looking at the image of the kneeling Browns and not listening to their message.

Do their critics want the rights for free speech or to peaceably assemble preserved only for those with whom they agree? Or are they upset because the problems dividing our nation bled onto the football field?

What I will take from Monday night is that the Browns, previously a symbol of losing, courageously decided to try to lead the way for change.

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