Brandon Marshall wanted to be part of the moment. The Denver Broncos wide receiver wanted to feel connected to the thousands who flooded into the streets around the country and the millions in a state of shock around the world as they celebrated the election of Barack Obama.
Marshall's plan was to score a touchdown on Thursday night, take out a black-and-white glove, and hold it up to the sky. "I wanted to create that symbol of unity because Obama inspires me, our multi-cultured society," he said after the game, choked with tears. "And I know at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico,Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised that black glove in that fist as a silent gesture of black power and liberation. Forty years later, I wanted to make my own statement. I wanted to make my own statement and gesture to represent the progress we made."
Unfortunately, we will never know what would have happened, or how the crowd would have reacted. We will never have that image of a football player bringing historical politics to the field. Marshall did score a touchdown, but as he removed the glove from his pocket, his teammates stopped him.
The problem was that Marshall's touchdown came with only one minute and twenty-two seconds left to play, putting the Broncos ahead, 34-30. His teammates—particularly fellow wideout Brandon Stokley and tight end Tony Scheffler—saw what he was about to do and stopped him, fearful of an automatic fifteen-yard penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct."
One can understand where Stokley and Sheffler were coming from, given the moment in the game—although the image of two white players surrounding a black player to block his political statement is the antithesis of the very ideas Marshall was attempting to communicate.
Yet the reaction from ESPN was even worse. The first talking head back at the SportsCenter headquarters took a shot at Marshall's emotional press conference saying, "Well, the sentiment is exactly right, even if the speechwriting needs some work." His partner then said of Marshall, "It's not about you or what you think. It's about the team and what they need to do." Ex-player turned broadcaster (and sometime soap opera star) Mark Schlereth called it, "The best play of Stokley's career." The Sporting News' Chris Mottram quoted Cleveland based blogger Vince Grzegorek,who called it "Marshall's Moronic Touchdown Tribute to President-Elect Obama."
Grzegorek then wrote of Marshall, "He's not bright, or flat out selfish, or a combustible mixture of the two."
There is no question that Marshall was taking a risk. There's no question he could have cost his team the game.
His coach, the stone-faced Mike Shanahan, has a written rule about not bringing politics into his all-business locker room.
Marshall could have risked the ire of the NFL, known as the No Fun League for cracking down on any hint, any whiff, of individuality on the part of players.
But maybe Marshall thought that the moment was more important than the game. Maybe he looked at basketball players like Kevin Garnett, who had the slogan "Embrace Change Vote '08" written on his sneakers, or Carmelo Anthony, who said that he would score forty-four points Wednesday in honor of the forty-fourth president. Marshall wanted to be part of the energy that has inspired more pro athletes to take part in this election cycle than ever before.
Instead of derision, Marshall merited our respect—sports fan or not—which should actually be exponentially higher since he was willing to take this risk when the game was on the line. The image of a pro football player raising a black-and-white hand to the skies forty years after Smith and Carlos and two days after the election of a black president in a country built on slavery could have echoed through the ages. Someone should tell the suits and ESPN: some things are actually more important than sports.