DENVER — Brandon Marshall went to his locker Thursday night after a stunning and improbable Broncos victory and picked up his phone. The official tally: 143 unread text messages. About four hours earlier Marshall had chosen to kneel for the national anthem, following in the footsteps of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, his teammate Eric Reid and Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane, and now Marshall’s phone was a ringing, pinging disaster. A Broncos media relations staffer pulled him aside after the game to warn him: “Don’t even look at your Twitter mentions. There’s gonna be a lot of hate.”
There are now four black men who have deemed racial inequality in the United States grounds to protest an NFL tradition that has been become synonymous with the game itself. Across the league, flags stretching the width of the field are unfurled by dozens of grateful volunteers, and players are filmed and broadcast staring wistfully into the distance. Marshall’s former teammate, Knowshon Moreno, became the very image of NFL patriotism when he shed massive raindrop tears during the anthem before a 2013 game.
Moreno talked about the privilege of playing pro football in his explanation. “Excited to play this game,” he said in 2013. “Excited to be a part of this team, definitely blessed and privileged to be able to play this game.”
On Thursday, Marshall doubled down on what Kaepernick, his former teammate at Nevada, has asserted since his initial preseason protest—that the opportunity to play in the NFL is not an excuse to forsake one’s conscience, but rather an obligation to maximize one’s voice.
“I prayed long and hard about it and I felt it was the right thing to do,” Marshall told The MMQB after the game. “It is what it is; I’m standing up for what I believe in. I know my family will support me.
“I’m not against the police. I’m not against the military. I’m not against America. I’m against social injustice. This movement is something special. People are going to bash me on social media but at the end of the day I’m going to go home and sleep peacefully knowing what I did was right. I will not lose any sleep.”
“So many people have trouble understanding and empathizing,” Marshall says. “It’s hate and it’s exactly what we talk about. People celebrating a possible concussion are proving my point.”
Marshall only told a small circle of people he’d been considering following in Kaepernick’s footsteps. The Broncos didn’t know; not his teammates nor the coaching staff. His mother and sister, in attendance for the season opener, had no idea. Marshall would tell the throng of 20 or so media members waiting at his locker that he was still unsure as he walked onto the field for the anthem.
When the time came, there was Marshall, beside teammates Jared Crick and Billy Winn, knee in the dirt with an arm resting on his thigh. Marshall’s mother and sister in the stands began receiving rapid phone calls and texts and were as surprised as anybody. Marshall consulted only with his cousin, Ennis, and close friend Jacob Wallace, who is safety T.J. Ward’s cousin. They warned him: Be ready for the backlash. Have your talking points ready.
“They said, ‘you might lose endorsements,’” Marshall says. “I’m ready for that.”
Marshall also received a text from Kaepernick after the game. “Congrats,” it read. “Give me a call.”
Tony Dungy and Rodney Harrison, two of the most prominent African Americans in pro football media, did not discuss the protest during NBC’s halftime program. Harrison, of course, apologized last week for saying Kaepernick is “not black” and thus unable to understand discrimination against black men.
Marshall wanted to make clear in his post-game comments that he had arrived at the conclusion he should join the protest only recently, and that the gesture was not connected to the anniversary of 9/11. He plans to donate part of his $2.5 million salary in 2016 to charities that support veterans returned from combat.
“I respect the troops,” Marshall says. “They fight for our rights to sit or stand, to protest and demonstrate peacefully. I honestly feel like this will spark some conversation and hopefully some change.”
Though Kaepernick and Marshall are close friends, Marshall said he hadn’t yet talked to Kaepernick about the protest. His decision was driven in part by personal experience. This summer, Marshall said he was dining with friends at a restaurant within Miami’s Bayside Marketplace, an enclave of restaurants and stores near downtown. Diners heard gunshots outside and ducked under tables out of fear. Police entered the restaurant minutes later and asked patrons to leave.
“I start walking to the exit I know,” Marshall says. “And there’s a lady in street clothes telling me to go a certain way, but I went my way. She starts yelling, Stop him! I’m walking and the police come, and I turn around and about five of them rush me. They grab me and they’re trying to wrestle me and take me to the ground. I’m standing my ground because I didn’t do anything; not fighting, but not laying down.
“A cop pulls his Taser out, they push me up against the wall and they handcuff me and they were going to take me in for resisting arrest but they eventually let me go. So they’re looking for a suspect, and some lady yells at me, and that’s enough to tackle me?”
Growing up in Las Vegas, Marshall rattled off instances of what he believed was racial profiling. In college he’d been pulled over while wearing a hoodie and grilled about his destination. (He says the officer never mentioned any infraction). In high school, Marshall’s older brother was pulled over while Marshall was sleeping in the passenger seat. The police insisted the groggy and confused Marshall must be high and requested to search their vehicle. His mother had profiling stories of her own, which she imparted to her children as a warning.
“I reminded them that they’re black men,” Barbara Marshall said Thursday night, “and it’s going to be harder for them to succeed… and I told them over and over again to be careful.”
The hate arrived with every ping of Marshall’s phone in an empty locker room beginning at about 6:30 p.m. mountain time. When Marshall took a blow to the head and went through the concussion protocol in the first half, his detractors celebrated in his mentions.
“So many people have trouble understanding and empathizing,” Marshall said. “I saw somebody say ‘Go back to where you’re from.’ I’m from Vegas. It’s hate and it’s exactly what we talk about. People celebrating a possible concussion are proving my point.”
Marshall was eventually cleared to return to action, and he finished the game with six tackles as the Broncos held on for a one-point win when Panthers kicker Graham Gano missed a 50-yard field goal wide left. After Marshall showered, dressed, gave interviews and greeted his family in the tunnel that leads to the player parking lot at Mile High, coach Gary Kubiak’s white pickup truck pulled slowly through the corridor and stopped beside Marshall. The coach, who declined post-game to share his feelings about the protest, leaned across the middle console and said, “I want to talk to you tomorrow.”
Marshall nodded agreement. Marshall figures they’ll have a conversation about what comes next, and he’s ready for that. But first he’ll get a good night’s sleep and wake up and read every text message, along with most of his Twitter mentions, no matter how cruel.
“You can’t hide from it,” he said.
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