Anatomy of an NFL Protest: How and Why the Browns Got the Country Talking

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterAugust 25, 2017

CLEVELAND, OH - AUGUST 21: A group of Cleveland Browns players kneel in a circle in protest during the national anthem prior to a preseason game against the New York Giants at FirstEnergy Stadium on August 21, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Late last week, Cleveland Browns defensive back Jason McCourty walked into the locker room, when he saw about a half-dozen of his teammates talking.

"What's going on here?" McCourty thought. 

It was the start of what would become the NFL's largest national anthem protest to date.

This is the anatomy of how it happened.

It started simply enough. McCourty's teammates told him they wanted to figure out a way to join the national anthem protests that started with Colin Kaepernick last season and have continued into this preseason. McCourty was all-in. The group talked, and over the span of several days, they decided what they wanted to do.

The group next went to head coach Hue Jackson to tell him of their intentions. On Monday, the day of the Browns' preseason contest against the Giants, Jackson approved.

"Do what you think is right," he told them.

The group came to a decision hours before the game.

"We decided to take a knee and say a prayer for peace between all Americans," McCourty said.

That part of the protest, which stands as the largest so far among NFL players, often has been lost among media and fans alike—that the main goal of the group was to pray for peace.

"We believe that through our actions, we can bring change," McCourty said in an interview with B/R.  

"Americans come from all types of different backgrounds," he continued. "Black or white, rich or poor, immigrant or not, from wherever you come from or live, we want the same thing. We are all Americans, and we wanted to make sure people understood what Colin's original message was all about.

"A lot of us, and a lot of people in football, were furious about what happened in Charlottesville. As NFL players, we have the power to remind everyone that we are all Americans. We shouldn't be pitted against one another."

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Linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Terrence Magee and Brandon Wilds, safety Jabrill Peppers, tight end Seth DeValve, wide receivers Kenny Britt and Ricardo Louis and defensive backs Calvin Pryor and Jamar Taylor dropped to a single knee in a huddle near the Browns' bench.

McCourty, quarterback DeShone Kizer, offensive tackle Shon Coleman, punter Britton Colquitt and offensive lineman Marcus Martin were all around them, putting a hand on their shoulders. Kirksey led the entire group in prayer.

NFL players are just like the rest of us. They watch and care about events happening in the country outside of their work. Before their protest, Browns players had talked extensively about some of the things happening in the United States recently, including the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a woman was killed when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters at a white supremacist rally.

The Browns' decision to take a knee was a brave act. But that is only part of the story. The other partabout what will happen in the futureis equally important to know.

NFL protests are growing, and they have the potential to do so exponentially. That is the next, new front in the Kaepernick saga, who for so long was so alone. Fans, coaches, front office executives, owners and the commissioner will have to grapple with that.

Scott Eklund/Associated Press

The attempt to squash Kaepernick backfired, McCourty said. A movement, partly based on Kaepernick and partly as a means of protest against President Donald Trump's vitriolic rhetoric, is exploding across NFL locker rooms.

Several players from both conferences told me they expect anywhere from 15 to 25 of the league's teams to have some type of demonstration on opening weekend. 

"We can bring change and raise awareness," McCourty said. "A lot of players have been wanting to do something but just didn't know how to handle things.

"Then a lot of us saw what happened with players protesting in Philadelphia. When Malcolm [Jenkins] protested and Chris [Long] protested, and we saw what Michael Bennett did [in Seattle], a lot of us thought, 'It's time to do something. We just can't sit still and watch this without doing something. We need to act.'"

He added: "You're going to see more players do this. It continues to grow around the league."

The story remains big on the field and off. The wife of Matthew Stafford, Kelly, became the first wife of a player to opine extensively on anthem protests. A rally to support Kaepernick on Wednesday outside of the NFL's Park Avenue headquarters in New York City reportedly drew 1,200 people, according to Jason Reid of ESPN.com. Kid Rock, during a live concert at the Iowa State Fair, said, "F--k Colin Kaepernick." Hank Aaron said NFL owners are gutless. Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson said something similar.

Then, perhaps in one of the most powerful moments of the Kaepernick story, the wife of Browns player Seth DeValve wrote a moving story for theroot.com (via USA Today's For the Win) about putting her husband's decision in the proper context. Erica Harris is black and DeValve is white.

McCourty made it clear that what the Browns were doingand may continue to dowas not about disrespecting the flag, police or military. It wasn't even necessarily about politics. It was about using the high profile of players and the sport to draw attention to various social issues.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - AUGUST 17: Malcolm Jenkins #27 of the Philadelphia Eagles holds his fist in the air during the national anthem while Chris Long #56 of the Philadelphia Eagles puts his arm around him prior to the preseason game against the Buffalo Bills
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

One day after the Browns kneeled, the Buccaneers had a team meeting with head coach Dirk Koetter to discuss their own demonstration plans.

"Coach opened it up about the national anthem and guys protesting and sitting down, letting us know that we can do what we want," cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times. "He let us know how he felt, and then he opened up the whole team room to anyone who had anything to say: Stand up and preach your opinion."

Football and social justice will be intertwined for the near future. Whether you agree with the players or not, protest is now a fact of NFL life.

In many ways, it was symbolically appropriate for the Browns to have helped spark a new wave of demonstrations. Four players broke the NFL's color barrier in the 1940s, and two of themMarion Motley and Bill Williswent to the Browns. Legendary coach Paul Brown brought them there.

Now comes McCourty and these Browns. 

It's possible the Browns sent this story in a new direction because of a few more brave NFL players.

So, what happens next?

"We're still figuring it out," McCourty said. "But I think everyone agrees the protests are something that in the NFL won't be going away any time soon."


Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL. 


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