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Transcript: Into Protest and the NFL

The full episode transcript for Into Protest and the NFL.
Image: Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos
Teddy Williams #21 of the Carolina Panthers kneels on the sideline prior to playing the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.Patrick Smith / Getty Images file


Into America

Into Protest and the NFL

Archival Recording: Will you continue, Colin, to sit? Will you continue to sit?

Colin Kaepernick: Yes. I'll continue to sit. I'm gonna continue to stand with the people that are bein' oppressed. To me, this is somethin' that has to change. And when there's significant change, and I feel like that flag represents who it's supposed to represent in this country is representing people the way that it's supposed to, I'll stand.

Archival Recording: Specifically what would you like to see change in order for you to stand?

Kaepernick: One specifically is police brutality. There's people being murdered unjustly and not bein' held accountable. That's not right, by anyone's standards.

Trymaine Lee: It's been almost four years since NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick began a peaceful protest against police brutality and racial injustice, at first, sitting, and then kneeling when the national anthem played during games. Last week in the middle of a nationwide movement against racism and the police killing of George Floyd, the debate around protest and football came up again.

Drew Brees: I will never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America, or our country.

Lee: That was Drew Brees, superstar quarterback for the New Orleans Saints.

Brees: And when I look at the flag of the United States, I envision my two grandfathers who fought for this country during World War II.

Lee: Brees is a white quarterback in a league where 70% of the players are black. Most of the coaches are white. And almost every single team owner is also white. For many black players, including Brees's own teammates, like safety Malcolm Jenkins, his comments were disappointing.

Malcolm Jenkins: You don't understand the history and why people like me, people with my skin color who's grandfather fought for this country, who served, and I still protested against that, not against the national anthem, but against what was happenin' in America. I'm telling you, my communities are dealing with these things. (SIGH) And your response to me is don't talk about that here. This is not the place. Where is the place, Drew?

Lee: Brees walked back what he said, and made multiple apologies--

Brees: I know that it hurt many people, especially friends, teammates. I wish I would have laid out what was on my heart in regards to the George Floyd murder, Ahmaud Arbery, the years and years of social injustice, police brutality, and the need for so much reform and change.

Lee: But the anger and frustration sparked by the moment, led by black players, provoked a response from the league.

Roger Goodell: We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier, and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.

Lee: That was NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a video statement last week. A pretty stunning admission from a league that banned on-field kneeling in 2018. Does this mean the NFL and its fans are ready for change? (MUSIC) I'm Trymaine Lee. And this is Into America.

I sat down with NFL wide receiver Brandon Marshall, a long time player, and quite frankly, one of the best I've ever seen play the game. We talked about his personal experience with these protests, and what's changed inside the league since Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in 2016. He thinks this time it just might be different.

Brandon Marshall: No one can push the NFL around. But man, we're talkin' about this movement, Black Lives Matter. This is bigger than the NFL.

Lee: So we've gone through this before, man. But somethin' about this moment feels really different. What George Floyd's death has done, the protest, what do you think it is about this moment that just, we had a different response this time?

Marshall: Yeah. I mean, I've heard everyone's answers, and so educated and thoughtful. But it's simple. We're in quarantine. There's nothin' else to do. (LAUGH) You know, there's nothin' else to do. And everyone's on their phone. There's nothing to watch. There isn't any NBA games, MLB games. So I hate to say it this way, but the perfect storm.

Lee: So you don't think there's anything necessarily about this case that resonates differently with people. You think it's just, like, the confluence of, you know, things right now. It's just the perfect situation for people to really be able to pay attention?

Marshall: From my perspective how? Look at Trayvon Martin. This kid was hunted. This kid was hunted. And the facts came out. We knew that. And we did nothin' about it. This has been goin' on forever. And it's one of those things that, you know, I'm dealing with. You know, when Kaepernick took a knee, I couldn't figure out why it didn't bother me as much as it did Kap.

You know, I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the poorest city in Pennsylvania. My father was the biggest drug dealer in the state. You know, I grew up seein' this every single day. I grew up bein' taught, you know, this is the way of life. You know, people didn't have an option where I came from.

You know, we either dribble a basketball or sell drugs. Right? That's how they felt. So for me, I just feel that, you know, obviously technology, everyone's on their phones. We're recordin' everything. We're seein' it more. So it was the perfect storm. But these stories have been goin' on, you know, for years.

Lee: Speakin' of goin' back for years, let's go back to 2016. It's the third pre-season game. And Colin Kaepernick at that time was a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers. First he sits down. The next week, he kneels down. Do you remember when it first happened, your reaction?

Marshall: I remember sayin', "He's right." One of the things that's been happenin' for the past ten years, the NFL started somethin'. The NFL started, you know, really leveraging their platform. And I use that word intentionally. They started leveraging their platform to do good.

And players start takin' note. So when Kap first sat, and then he took a knee, you know, all of us was, like, "Okay, this is Kap's. This is his thing." And we all could relate to it, right? But when it broke the way it did, and everybody start talkin' about it, I just remember thinkin', "Okay, there's gonna be 1,000 cameras in my face. What should I do? What should I say?"

And I was one of those guys that was more cautious. But the first thing I did is I went back and I literally left the locker room before the media came in, and start listenin' to Dr. Martin Luther King. Because I wanted to make sure that I was educated, on top of my game when the camera came in my face. (BACKGROUND VOICE)

Martin Luther King did amazing job of making sure that, you know, everyone is at the table. What I mean by that is, he never once went against America. He always said America was an amazing nation. Whether he believed that or not, I don't know. But I say that because if you wanna get things done, you have to do it in a way where everyone's at the table. And so I'm excited about the times we're in. You know, 'cause we're talkin' about it. And, you know, we'll see what happens.

In that moment, I knew that this topic was so much bigger than me. It was so much bigger than Kap. And it's real. That I didn't wanna say the wrong thing. And I also said that to the guys in the locker room. "If you don't know what you're talkin' about, shut the hell up." I told 'em, "If you need resources, please stand up and ask. But it's powerful. We don't need you guys standin' up just sayin' anything. Now we as a team try to come together and figure out are we all gonna take a knee together, are all going to lock arms together?" And I think that's where--

Lee: You were on the Jets at the time, right?

Marshall: I was in the Jets. Yup. So big platform, big stage. And I think that's where a lot of players went wrong, a lot of teams went wrong. 'Cause as leaders, we're taught to bring the team together, and eliminate distractions. So we all tried to do something together.

But tryin' to bring together 80, 90 men on the sidelines to do one thing is almost impossible. And that's why we didn't see the movement back then. Because we all weren't on the same page. And I don't think we all should have been on the same page. I think if we had had 50%, 60%, 70% on the guys takin' a knee, it would have been more impactful.

But we needed the right guys, not just, you know, a third stringer, fourth stringer, special teams guys, which I respect. I started there. But we needed the superstars, like myself, the Tom Brady's, the OBJ's of the world, the Antonio Browns, the Ben Roethlisbergers of the world.

Lee: Speakin' of those players, you know, the league is 70% black. What was the response from your white teammates, who may not understand? Because you like you said a minute ago, black athletes might not be so well informed and articulate enough to kind of break it all down. But when it comes to those white players, who even though they're your teammates, they go to war with you on the field, they come from different worlds. What was that like?

Marshall: I do wanna say this now. There's more people, there's more white athletes, more white people that are standing up. It's almost like their back is against the wall. And, like, you have to say somethin'. Now it's not enough to say you're not racist. You have to be anti-racist, right?

Back then, we had our white community, our white brothers and sisters. But the issue was they weren't sayin' that we were anti-racist. And I think that's where the power's at. So, you know, it was all over the place. We had some teammates, you know, they were passionate about the flag, and passionate about, you know, doin' things in a, in their eyes, in a professional manner. Man, we had some guys, you know, like, the lones (PH) of the world, where they stood up, and they were, like, "This is wrong." And they took a knee with our guys. So people were all over the place.

Lee: In 2017, in the fall, President Donald Trump came out and said, you know, called you guys, the guys who weren't kneeling, SOBs, (APPLAUSE) and said you should be fired.

Donald Trump: Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, (CHEERING) "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out. He's fired. He's fired."

Lee: And then we saw a backlash from fans. What does it feel like when you have white fans especially who are cheering you along, love that you can run fast, catch a ball, jump high, hit a guy real hard, to have them turn on black players so quickly when the impetus was they're killin' us in the streets. They're beating us. And this is what the protest is about. (LAUGH)

Marshall: I can't speak for every guy in the locker room. But I think I can speak for the majority. It didn't take this for us to know that. You know, that's one of the things that we're sayin', is, like, we've been dealin' with this forever. So we know it. You know, you gotta think about it.

You know, when you're in college, and you go to West Virginia to play the Mountaineers, or you go to Virginia and you're playin' against Marshall, you're probably gonna get beer bottles thrown at you. So we hear these stories. So, you know, there wasn't a big difference. Right? We were just havin' a discussion.

Lee: Wow. Does that take away from the experience? You work hard your entire life?

Marshall: No. There isn't a huge difference. You know, you can go to, man, (LAUGH) I mean, I've been in Baltimore. I've been in Kansas City. They're great fans, majority of 'em. But I've been in Baltimore, city that's similar to a place where I've grown up, where I grew up. You know, Buffalo, there's been sometimes where those NFL fans, I've heard them call, you know, my teammates or down another team.

You know, a (BEEP). I've been called out my name. You know, it's just one of those things. It's life. So that's why when I say when Kap took that knee I was kinda numb to it, is because in our neighborhoods and how we're raised, there's an extra phase toward the development of a black kid.

You know, we have to learn how to survive. Our parents have to teach us how to survive. You're not a good black parent if you're not teaching your kids about, you know, police brutality, if you're not teaching your kids how to, you know, operate when you get pulled over.

Like, a lot of those discussions, we have when we are in elementary, middle school, right? A lot of our teachers teach us that in school. So, you know, I just think it's a way of life. And for me, you know, that's why I always go back to, like, dang. It just didn't hit me as hard. And really, George Floyd is when I really start feeling for the first time.

You know, because I'm, like, "Man, I'm built to survive. I'm built and trained to make it. You know, I'm always prepared." You know, and not that I'm out of the NFL, and I'm not in that institution anymore, you know, I'm startin' to feel for the first time. And it's really interesting because I'm trying to find, you know, I've always been a outspoken person.

But it's almost like outspoken in a box. So now I'm tryin' to find my voice outside of the NFL. And how do I talk about these topics, and deal with certain things? And, but I would say this. And this may even go to, like, the Drew Brees discussion. Why are we getting mad when people stand up on their platform, and speak their truth?

Like, let people speak their truth. Because now we know exactly who is who. And now we can use them as examples, and have these conversations of this is what we're talkin' about. This is the privilege we're talkin' about. We can't get wrapped up in changin' the heart of man.

Now we need to use men and women as the example to show people, like, this is what we're talking about. But they believe what they believe. We need to change the system. That's what we need to change. We need to put our energy there. Anything outside of just using people's tweets and Instagram posts or their statements as examples is a waste of energy. Because Drew Brees believing what he believes in, his grandfather served this country. Great. Thank you. He fought for our freedom. Thank you so much. But this has nothing to do with this topic.

Lee: We'll be right back. Stick with us. (MUSIC) For those that might not have been payin' attention, Drew Brees, Hall of Fame level quarterback for the New Orleans Saints last week told Yahoo News that, that he will "never agree with anybody disrespecting the flag of the United States of America." He also invoked the military services family members.

The NFL has been responding to Drew Brees's comments now in a way that has surprised many people. What do you make of the response now, saying, "You know what? We now realize that we should have allowed our players to speak. We now realize that it's not about the flag and the military. We now realize it." What do you make of this turnaround?

Marshall: There's no turnaround to me. This is what they're supposed to do. Because it's so much bigger than the NFL. It's hard to be bigger than the NFL. There would never be a player bigger than the NFL. There will never be a team bigger than the NFL. No one can push the NFL around.

But man, when we're talkin' about this movement, Black Lives Matter, this is bigger than the NFL. Like you said earlier, 70% of the NFL is black, is minorities. They have to have this discussion. So the NFL, the reason why they're so big and so powerful, because they're so smart.

So all the NFL is doin' is getting ahead of it. The NFL doesn't want, you know, guys kneeling. Why? Because that is speaking to the demographic that is paying. They don't like that. Right? So they're trying to weather the storm now, take their licks now, so when the season start, there's no distractions.

Now we're back to bein' the NFL. So for me, it's, I think, if you're a public figure, if you're a company and you wanna learn how to do damage control, and play public relations, like, this is 101. Like, watch the NFL right now. Yeah, they got it wrong before. But right now, they're getting ahead of it.

They're doin' a phenomenal job, right? It is what it is. (LAUGH) But, you know, this is a powerful moment. And, you know, it's a conversation that needs to be had, whether you're makin' a statement because it's what you really believe, or if you're makin' a statement because you think you have to do it. You know, it's all gonna help the cause. So, you know, I'm glad that, you know, not only them, but there's other companies standin' up, and doin' the right thing.

Lee: I think it is amazing when you think about, as you describe it, this master class. Because in 2018, the NFL banned players from kneeling. And now NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is apologizing. But he said this.

Goodell: Without black players, there would be no National Football League.

Lee: Do you think the NFL changes after this? Or do you think, as you mentioned, it just goes back to that kind of plantation system after this is all over?

Marshall: I don't think the world can go back. You know, it's like when we talked about COVID-19. We said that we're forever changed. This is the new norm. And I think the way we do business, like, people are really gonna be able to, they're gonna be held accountable. Because it's not just black people standin' up sayin' this.

People are going to hold companies and individuals accountable the same way we held individuals accountable with the MeToo movement, and, you know, women's right movement. Like, you know, this thing is never going back there. It can't. There's people around the world marching for Black Lives Matter.

Lee: And speakin' of leadership, we just saw this commercial last week, with a bunch of NFL players saying, you know, "I am."

Player Voices: I am George Floyd. I am Breonna Taylor. I am Ahmaud Arbery. I am Eric Gardner. I am (UNINTEL). I am Tamir Rice. I am Trayvon Martin. I am Walter Scott. I am (INAUDIBLE)--

Lee: And saying a name of someone who passed. That was very powerful. Do you think that this really is a pivot point for players finding their voice as well?

Marshall: Yes. I do. 'Cause I feel that back in 2016, we were so afraid to be blackballed, or actually cut. There was a lot of players that were cut. Antonio Cromartie was cut. Duane Brown was traded from Houston to Seattle because he took a knee. And the owner said, "You know, we're not gonna have the inmates run the yard." Right?

Now this movement is so big, so powerful that if you wanna make a statement, if you want to talk about this, you know, talk about Black Lives Matter or lean into it, you are free to do that. So I just think that, you know, this is the world we live in. And we just gotta change our mentality and how we approach things.

Lee: You know, but I wonder once we're back to football, and once we're back to basketball, you have a lot of fans, white fans, who say you're gettin' paid a lot of money. Shut up and dribble. You know, keep the politics. I didn't wanna think about race on Sunday. I don't wanna think about race on Monday night. Just catch the ball.

Marshall: Yeah.

Lee: Do you think the hearts and souls of those fans will change?

Marshall: But we're also gonna have other fans finally standin' up sayin', "No, you shut up." Right? "You shut up and watch."

Lee: Right. (LAUGH)

Marshall: So I think that's the difference. I think that's the difference. Yeah, we're gonna have that pushback. We're gonna have that tension. But at the end of the day, it's not going to be fans versus players. It's gonna be good people versus bad people. Right? I think that's gonna be the difference.

Lee: Mental health has been somethin' that you've been outspoken about, and been an advocate for. And I wonder when you see the video of George Floyd being killed, when we see Ahmaud Arbery joggin' through a neighborhood, and these two white vigilantes put three bullets in him, and we see that man fall.

And we see this over and over again. And I wonder what you think that repeated exposure to that kinda trauma does to us as Americans, but also as black people, as black men, to see that. How do we wrestle with the stain, I'll say, that those incidents leave on us?

Marshall: So I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 2011. I spent three months in a outpatient program in Waltham, Massachusetts, McLean Hospital, number two psychiatric hospital in the world. I spent $35,000 a month to get the help that I needed that radically changed my life, transformed my life.

There I realized that, you know, the anger and the behavior issues, and, you know, just my mentality and my approach to life and the game, it wasn't a mental disorder. The ideology behind it was my environment. That's what I realize. So when we talk about the trauma, and growing up watching this, or bein' a part of this, bein' treated like this, that scars you for life. And we have a lot of work to do in our community. You know, there's a lot of mental health work that we need to get done, and get started.

Lee: And when we think about it, we often don't have the language to talk about it. We don't have the tools. But it impacts the way we deal with each other as black men especially, the way we deal with black women, the way we deal with our families, right?

Marshall: I'm dealin' with it now. And I've been advocating (LAUGH) for this for ten years. And right now, I'm angry. But what's interesting is I'm sitting back, and I'm watching my response to my wife, to my children, how short I am, right? And I'm, like, "Holy crap. Let me fix this." 'Cause I just watched MSNBC or CNN, and I'm outraged, right?

So, you know, I think that it's somethin' that we have to pay close attention to. 'Cause that was one of the things that I was able to realize when I was on that journey, was literally after leaving a situation, whether it's football practice, work, watching somethin' on television, right away our behavior can change, our mood can change and our response to the people that we do life with can change. And I'm dealin' with that right now, 'cause I haven't been this angry in a very long time.

Lee: Movin' into a new season with the NFL, what do you wanna see from other players now, specifically, like, the white players as they're watching their teammates, you know, wrestle with all the stuff goin' on, and struggle with it, and see the news? What do you hope and expect for them?

Marshall: Well, yeah. I think that there's some guys, we're talkin' about a $1 billion business, multi-billion dollar business, with million dollar athletes. You're not gonna have everyone take a knee. We're not gonna have everyone stand up, right? 'Cause they're gonna protect their nest.

But I know for a fact that there's going to be the Ryan Tannehills of the world, even a Drew Brees of the world that are gonna stand up and fight the same fight that we've been fightin' for years. So I just want those guys, I just want 'em to stay strong.

I don't want them to burn out. Whatever the movement is, I want guys to do it together. That's what I wanna see. If we're gonna take a knee, let's take a knee together. If we're gonna lock arms, let's lock arms together. If before the game, every game, we're gonna walk out in the middle of the field together, with the opposing team, and take a moment of silence, let's do that.

Let's put all black cleats on, and let's raise money for Black Lives Matter. You know, we did a phenomenal job with raising awareness and money for cancer. And we've also done that the last five years of other charity. Let's take a entire week or two and dedicate that to raising awareness, and raising money for our communities.

So I just want guys to just continue to move forward, have this discussion, use the platform. And then also, I would say this as well. Platforms is everything. There's a lot of companies standin' up, saying that, you know, we're donating $100,000, $200,000. That's nothin'. We can't take that bait.

We can't. It's not even that it's a drop in the bucket. It's just, like, that's just checkin' a box. Let us participate. Let us (LAUGH) sit at the table. Give us a job. You know, look at us. Look at our neighborhood. Use this moment to do good. You know, this is the discussion that we have to have. It's probably the most uncomfortable conversation that you can have, you know, at home, at work. And we have to have it.

Lee: You know, one thing you said earlier, and I don't know if you broke news or I missed the news. You said now that you're out of football. (LAUGH) Now, I let it slide by. I said let me come back to that. Are you done? I mean, 'cause you're a free agent officially. But are you makin' news now, man? Are you steppin' away.

Marshall: Well, until I catch another pass, I'm done. (LAUGH)

Lee: Until.

Marshall: I'm buildin' my company, right? Yeah. There's a few teams that wanna move me inside in a slot. And they wanna take a look at me at H-back or tight end. So there's some interest there. We'll see how things go in the next month. I feel great. You know, I've been workin' out. I always work out. It's a part of my life in training. So we'll see.

Lee: Tight end (LAUGH) Brandon Marshall. Man, that might be exciting. That might change the game--

Marshall: Yeah. (INAUDIBLE PHRASE) five years at the H-back. I wouldn't say tight end. Tight end you gotta block those big Julius Peppers of the world. (LAUGH)

Lee: Thank you so much for your time, man. You know, I'm an NFL fan. I'm a Eagles fan. But I've watched your (MUSIC) career, man. It's 1) on the field, obviously we understand how proficient and prolific you were as a receiver. But I think more impressively is your redemption story. So I applaud you for that. You've had quite a journey.

Marshall: Yes. Thank you so much.

Lee: Brandon Marshall is a wide receiver. And you heard it first, maybe a future tight end, who has played in the NFL for 13 seasons. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.