One salute that wasn’t allowed

November 10, 2008

Denver Broncos player Brandon Marshall was ready to make a political statement after the election of the first Black president---but his teammates stopped him.

ALL BRANDON Marshall wanted was the opportunity to be part of the moment. The Denver Broncos' wide receiver wanted to feel connected to the thousands who have flooded into the streets and the millions in a state of shock and awe around the world, celebrating the election of Barack Obama.

Marshall's plan was to score a touchdown on Thursday night and then 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 multicultured 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 politics to the field. Marshall did score a touchdown, but as he removed the glove from his pocket, his teammates stopped him.

Columnist: Dave Zirin

The problem was that Marshall's touchdown came with only one minute and 22 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 15-yard penalty for "unsportsmanlike conduct."

One can be charitable toward Stokley and Scheffler, 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 the action "Marshall's Moronic Touchdown Tribute to President-Elect Obama." Mottram then wrote of Marshall, "He's not bright, or flat-out selfish, or a combustible mixture of the two."

There's no question that Marshall was taking a risk. There's no question he could have cost his team the game. He also could have paid a professional price. 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 44 points Wednesday in honor of the 44th 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 greater 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 40 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.

First published at TheNation.com.

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