CLEVELAND — Kneeling and bowing their heads, the Cleveland Browns bonded over something bigger than football.
More than a dozen players formed a circle on the team’s sideline Monday night and prayed in silent protest during the national anthem.
The group, which included veterans, rookies, starters and backups, gathered in front of some water coolers and behind their teammates who stood on the sideline shortly before the Browns hosted the New York Giants in an NFL pre-season game.
In the aftermath of the recent racially charged conflict in Charlottesville, the Browns felt compelled to use their platform to make a difference.
"I wanted to take the opportunity with my teammates during the anthem to pray for our country," said tight end Seth DeValve, one of two white players to participate. "And also to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do. And that’s why I did what I did."
Linebackers Jamie Collins and Christian Kirksey, running backs Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Terrance Magee and Brandon Wilds, safety Jabrill Peppers, DeValve, wide receivers Kenny Britt and Ricardo Louis and defensive back Calvin Pryor dropped to one knee in a huddle. Rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer, offensive tackle Shon Coleman, punter Britton Colquitt, defensive back Jason McCourty and offensive lineman Marcus Martin stood and supported their teammates by putting their hands on their shoulders.
Colquitt also placed a hand over his heart as Kirksey led the group in prayer.
"As professional athletes, in our realm and with our platform, we can invoke a lot of change," said McCourty, who signed with the Browns as a free agent in March after eight seasons in Tennessee. "Guys are trying to do something to stand on our platform and show people that we want to stand up for this country and show that no matter what your colour is, no matter what your background is, whatever, we can all come together and work together to make it a better place."
The protest was the largest so far in a social-consciousness movement started last season by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who became a polarizing figure for kneeling during the anthem and is currently out of the NFL. In recent days, Seattle defensive lineman Michael Bennett and Philadelphia defensive back Malcolm Jenkins also have called attention to what they feel is racial injustice in the country.
Oakland running back Marshawn Lynch also has sat during the national anthem in the preseason, but hasn’t elaborated on his reasoning.
Browns coach Hue Jackson, who last week clarified previous remarks that seemed to indicate he was opposed to any demonstrations, stood behind his players.
"We respect our players; we respect the flag," Jackson said following Cleveland’s 10-6 win. "Those guys came to me and talked to me about it before they ever made a decision to do it. That is the way we feel about it, and we have talked about this. I said at some point in time, they may, and they have. I won’t know about the next game until it happens, but again, this was tonight and we will move on from there."
DeValve, who is in his second season out of Princeton, said he and his teammates have had several discussions about recent racial tensions and other social issues.
He didn’t want to offend anyone with his protest.
"It saddens me that in 2017 we have to do something like that," he said. "I personally would like to say that I love this country. I love our national anthem, I’m very grateful to the men and women who have given their lives and give a lot every day to this country and to serve this country, and I want to honour them as much as I can.
"The United States is the greatest country in the world. It is because it provides opportunities to its citizens that no other country does. The issue is that it doesn’t provide equal opportunity to everybody. And I wanted to support my African-American teammates today who wanted to take a knee. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there’s things in this country that still need to change. I myself will be raising children that don’t look like me, and I want to do my part as well to do everything I can to raise them in a better environment than we have right now."