NFL players protesting the national anthem this past regular season in the wake of repeated incidents of white police officers shooting unarmed black citizens drew both praise and disdain around the country.
Broncos’ linebacker Brandon Marshall became a primary lightning rod for fans and non-football enthusiasts alike to cast their ire.
But it was Marshall’s follow-through in the protest with a promise to help change his community rather than just demonstrate against it that earned the five-year NFL veteran the annual Courage Award from the Harvard Graduate School of Education Alumni of Color Conference.
“After receiving criticism for kneeling during the National Anthem in solidarity with innocent lives lost at the hands of law enforcement, Marshall has worked to lead efforts in Denver to increase collaboration and community engagement with the Denver Police Department,” the AOCC wrote in its press release.
Honored to be recognized by Harvard's Graduate School for taking a stance against social injustice this past year. 1 Corinthians 15:58 pic.twitter.com/WPcdcf7J8V— Brandon Marshall (@BMarshh54) February 21, 2017
Tweeting his gratitude for the award, Marshall included the reference for a Bible verse that motivated his eight-week protest:
“Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (I Corinthians 15:58)
Marshall announced last Sept. 8 that he would kneel during the anthem in the Broncos’ nationally televised opener that night for the Super Bowl rematch against the Carolina Panthers. His former UNLV teammate Colin Kaepernick and two other NFL players had sat on the bench during the anthem in preseason games.
Marshall noted at the time and throughout his kneeling protest that it was an action he believed in.
“I prayed long and hard about it and I felt it was the right thing to do,” Marshall told The MMQB after the game against the Panthers. “It is what it is; I’m standing up for what I believe in. I know my family will support me.”
Marshall noted even then that he wasn’t “against” police or the military or America – as so many critics liked to reduce his actions to – but rather that he understood his power as a professional athlete with a mouthpiece that so many African-Americans do not have to speak out against social injustice.
No. 54 knew it might result in the loss of some endorsements.
And it did – Air Force Credit Union and Century Link Colorado among them.
“I feel like this is the right platform,” Marshall said following a lot of public backlash, including comments from NFL announcers and even liberal Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg. “This is our only platform to really be heard. And I feel a lot of times people want us to just shut up and entertain them, shut up and play football. But we have voices as well.
The linebacker also knew it would result in a lot of social media hate.
And it did – 143 messages about his protest after the first game – plus on-going comments and threats throughout the season.
Despite the criticism and threats, Marshall followed through to do something tangible in the community. He met with Denver Police Chief Robert White, had conversations with local leaders, and he donated $300 for every tackle he made to local charities.
“My intent was not to offend anyone but rather to simply raise awareness and create some dialogue toward affecting positive change in our communities,” Marshall said in an Instagram post Sept. 14, 2016.
“In the last week, I’ve had a lot of productive conversations with people I respect, including Chief White of the Denver Police Department. I really appreciate all of them taking the time to listen to me and offer some insight and feedback on ways we can all make a difference,” he added. “But, it’s clear there is so much more work to be done by all of us. Together, we all need to Stand Up for change. This starts with me.”
Marshall did start some change, and Harvard will recognize him for it March 3.