About a dozen players from the Cleveland Browns team are receiving applause for taking a knee on Monday night, to pray about racial and social injustice, during the national anthem before their pre-season game against the New York Giants Monday night.
"We just felt like it was the right time and the need to do it," linebacker and prayer leader Christian Kirksey told ESPN.
"There's a lot of racial and social injustices in the world that are going on right now," Jabrill Peppers, another player who participated, said after the game. "We just decided to take a knee and pray for the people who have been affected and just pray for the world in general."
"We were not trying to disrespect the flag or be a distraction to the team," Peppers added, "but as men we thought we had the right to stand up for what we believed in, and we demonstrated that."
Although most of the identified players—including Kirksey, Peppers, Jamie Collins, Duke Johnson, Isaiah Crowell, Calvin Pryor, Jamar Taylor, Kenny Britt, Ricardo Louis, Brandon Wilds, and Terrence Magee—are black, they were joined by Seth DeValve, the first known white NFL player to kneel with teammates since a trend of pre-game protests over racial injustice began last season.
DeValve said the action was partly inspired by Charlottesville, but it was also personal for him. His wife is African American, and he said he took a knee because he hopes to raise his children "in a better environment than we have right now," adding: "I wanted to take the opportunity with my teammates during the anthem to pray for our country and also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do."
"The United States is the greatest country in the world. It is because it provides opportunities to citizens that no other country does. The issue is that it doesn't provide equal opportunity to everybody," DeValve told ESPN.
The players—including athletes who remained standing, but placed supportive hands on their kneeling teammates' shoulders—were celebrated on social media:
We are all in this together! Two white players join Cleveland Browns in NFL's largest anthem protest https://t.co/j65WjvZD6V
— Mark Ruffalo (@MarkRuffalo) August 22, 2017
— Samuel Ronan (@Ronan4Progress) August 22, 2017
— UNSTRIPPED VOICE (@UnstrippedVoice) August 22, 2017
Their action Monday—the largest the league has seen so far—follows protests by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who dominated national headlines last season, garnering both praise and condemnation, when he refused to stand for the national anthem—first sitting, then kneeling. At the time, Kaepernick told NFL Media:
I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.... To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.
Other NFL players expressed solidarity with Kaepernick last season. Some of his teammates and players across the country "locked arms, raised their fists, or knelt during or just after the national anthem during the first big day of the league's 2016 season," ABC News reported last September. Despite the support, those who knelt with Kaepernick were people of color; however, DeValve's participation Monday, as well as actions by others during this year's preseason, indicate a shift.
At least three other white NFL players have protested during the anthem during the 2017 pre-season, but "those three players—the Eagles' Chris Long, the Seahawks' Justin Britt and the Raiders' Derek Carr—stood while showing support for black teammates," the Washington Post reported.
Even so, Kaepernick's protests last season may have impacted his future in the NFL. He currently remains a free agent—meaning the quarterback has no team for this season, and at this point, it's unlikely he'll find one. His preseason on the sidelines has left some of his critics feeling vindicated, but has also provoked calls for an NFL boycott if Kaepernick remains unsigned.