CLEVELAND — A group of players were gathered inside the Cleveland Browns locker room Sunday when Jason McCourty walked out of the shower. The defensive back’s curiosity drew him over and, eventually, into the conversation.
What transpired was the beginning of the largest demonstration by an NFL team during the national anthem since the protests began when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand last year.
“I was like, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’ ” McCourty said. “And that’s how it started. A group of guys sitting there talking about it.”
Twelve Browns players knelt in a circle and prayed, while five others, including McCourty, stood with a hand resting on a kneeling player’s shoulder before Monday night’s preseason contest against the New York Giants. Seventeen players in all participated in the demonstration to call attention to racial injustice in the United States.
The Browns’ protest stood in contrast to the scenes this preseason on many sidelines, where anthem displays have been confined to a modest group of players on just a handful of teams. Although many more players share a simmering unhappiness with team owners about Kaepernick’s continued unemployment and about issues such as police brutality and mistreatment of blacks and minorities, they’ve chosen to remain largely silent.
So why the Browns? As the ripples of a protest movement started by Kaepernick last season spread, the Browns — the youngest team in the NFL — had remained fairly quiet. But Cleveland’s front office structure, coupled with the city’s and the franchise’s history, suggest a far different question: Why not the Browns?
“That just kind of happened organically, and it came to fruition on game day,” McCourty said in an interview Wednesday.
No single player will take credit for the protest. McCourty said that ideas bounced back and forth during the conversation as they considered the best way to convey a message, especially in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville earlier this month, when white nationalists, neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klan members held a violent rally over the removal of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s statue.
They agreed that prayer would be the focal point of their demonstration.
“We wanted to take the time to pray for our country,” said tight end Seth DeValve, who became the first white NFL player to kneel during the anthem. “It wasn’t something that was meant to be disrespectful to anything or anybody. It was something that was meant to take time out to pray for the status of our country.”
Before they acted, they spoke to Browns Coach Hue Jackson. He supported their right to use their voice, as did the entire organization. The Browns are the only NFL team with a black football operations executive, Sashi Brown, and black head coach. There had been an assumption that there was rift between the players and Jackson following his comments immediately after the events in Charlottesville. “I would hope that we don’t have those issues,” he said Aug. 14, when asked about players’ national anthem protests.
Jackson clarified his remark two days later with a statement he carried in his back pocket to resort to if he was asked about the issue again. He said players should “embrace the platform they have as NFL players to improve our community and use their platform in a positive, thoughtful and responsible manner.” Still, Jackson received plenty of criticism for his initial comments.
“I’m still surprised that that is what still stays out there, because I had never talked to our football team about it; we never had a conversation,” said Jackson, who acknowledged that he could have had that conversation with his players earlier. “I just said I wish that they didn’t. I didn’t say that they shouldn’t. And so we had a good conversation, and that’s what it led to. These guys have been outstanding.”
With the organization understanding their message and backing their decision, DeValve, running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson Jr., Terrence Magee and Brandon Wilds; safeties Jabrill Peppers and Calvin Pryor; wide receivers Kenny Britt and Ricardo Louis; linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey; and cornerback Jamar Taylor all took a knee Monday night. McCourty, quarterback DeShone Kizer, offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Marcus Martin and punter Britton Colquitt stood with their hands over the players as the national anthem played.
“I just think it was special,” said McCourty, who also lifted his fist during the anthem last year during the season opener as a member of the Tennessee Titans.
Conversations in the Browns’ locker room about racial injustice and police brutality actually date back to 2014, when two police killings — of a black boy, Tamir Rice, in Cleveland, and a black man, John Crawford III, in Beavercreek, Ohio, occurred less than four months and 210 miles apart.
A Browns player made a public demonstration in the aftermath of those killings long before Kaepernick’s stance. Former Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt before a home game against the Cincinnati Bengals seeking justice for Rice and Crawford, who were both holding toy BB guns that police said were confused for actual weapons. Hawkins, 31, was moved because he said he couldn’t have a toy BB gun as a child. His mother prohibited the toy for his own protection.
“You don’t get it [as a child],” said Hawkins, who retired last month after six NFL seasons, three of them with the Browns from 2014 to 2016. “Everybody else got toy guns. Why can’t I use toy guns? My mom was preparing for the worst case and protecting her child by any means necessary. I can remember watching the Tamir thing, and it was like, dang. All that came back into my mind immediately.”
That atmosphere remained in the locker room after Hawkins was cut in February, as young players on the roster became more aware of their surroundings and the power of their voices.
DeValve, 24, said he’s received “very mixed” reactions about their demonstration since Monday night. His wife, who is black, restricted access on his phone so he’s not tempted to read some of the responses online.
“The opinions on the topic of racism in America has been mixed for a couple hundred years, so it’s to be expected,” said DeValve, who emphasized that he’s playing a supportive role and not trying to be the face of the effort, as a white man seeking racial equality.
But there has been a noteworthy amount of criticism of the Browns’ action on social media for disrespecting the flag and the military. It included Justice William M. O’Neill of the Ohio Supreme Court, who posted on Facebook he will “NEVER attend a sporting event where the draft dodging millionaire athletes disrespect the veterans who earned them the right to be on that field.”
Meanwhile, Kanonie Hall respected the players for not being a “puppet.”
It’s a two-hour drive from the state Supreme Court office in Columbus to Hall’s residence in inner-city Cleveland, a city that’s 53.3 percent black. On Wednesday, while watching black children play outside at the Cudell Recreation Center, the site of Rice’s death three years ago, the 45-year-old African American man said racism has been an issue that nobody wants to address. He said he has been to City Hall to raise concerns about conditions in the black community but he hasn’t noticed much change.
“I could speak all day, I could speak until I’m blue in the face, it’s never going to be heard,” Hall said. “I don’t matter. I don’t have the complexion for the connection.”
Historically, the Browns have been a voice on racial matters within the NFL, the city and the country. They were one of two professional football franchises, along with the Los Angeles Rams, that broke the color barrier in pro football in 1946, a year before Jackie Robinson made his major league debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers to integrate baseball. Browns Coach Paul Brown signed Hall of Famers Bill Willis and Marion Motley during the inaugural season of the franchise, which would pave the way for the addition of Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown in 1957.
Ten years later, Brown teamed up with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Cleveland for a summit named the Black Economic Union. The meeting also featured three of Brown’s teammates — John Wooten, Sid Williams and Walter Beach.
“I want them to keep protesting,” said Hall, who also noted that his father served in the Marines. “As long as they keep protesting, people are going to keep waking up and people are going to change.”
Browns players intend to continue their demonstration, although they hadn’t met yet as of midweek because of preparations for the team’s first preseason road game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Saturday night.
But the desire is still there, and so is the support from the organization.
“To me, if you have a message and it’s something that you guys want to really, truly get out there, then you need to get it out there and be real about it, per se, as we say in this world,” Jackson said. “Be about what you say. Say what you mean, mean what you say and stick to it.”