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Locker Room Talk: Cleveland Browns’ kneeling prayer changes the message of Kaepernick’s protest

And with white players joining in, will that change how protests are seen?

The Cleveland Browns have presented the strongest evidence yet that NFL players will not be bullied, beaten or intimidated around the issue of freedom of speech and expression.

What began as a referendum over agreement or disagreement about Colin Kaepernick has evolved into protest about players’ right to expression without fear of reprisals.

Days after Browns head coach Hue Jackson said he felt his team would not demonstrate during the playing of the national anthem, 12 of them did. Before the Aug. 19 game against the New York Giants, the players knelt while the anthem was being played but added a variation on the theme: They prayed.

Veteran Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey, who led the prayer session, told reporters: “We just wanted to get together, take a knee and say a prayer, especially during a time that a lot of things are going on. A lot of our guys felt that it was right to do something, and that’s what we did.”

I feel for Hue Jackson, one of a handful of black head coaches in the NFL.

Jackson has had to fight his own battles against racism in a league where African-Americans flourish as players but lag significantly behind as executives. Jackson knows of white supremacy, a new Confederacy, even new Nazi sentiment, and he knows many of the NFL owners supported the candidacy of a president who seems to stoke the sparks that sustain these groups.

Jackson went out of his way earlier this week to clarify his position that he loves the United States but believes in his players’ right to express themselves.

The Browns players, most of whom are African-American, appreciated Jackson’s precarious position as well. They spoke with him before the Giants game and let him know what they planned.

“He’s our head coach,” said Kirksey. “We don’t want to catch anything by surprise, so we felt it was respectful to let him know what was going on, what the players were going to do before the game. We went ahead and told him, and we did it.”

Jackson had his say, the players are having theirs. Bottom line: The Browns won their game against the Giants, and most Cleveland fans went home happy.

If the players keep kneeling and the Browns keep winning, the franchise, indeed a city that has not had an NFL champion since 1964, might make kneeling a pregame requirement.

Because of the protests, demonstrations and polarizing rhetoric, players in all sports find themselves in the unique position of being uniquely situated to unify and mobilize. Look at what Kaepernick has spawned, without really trying.

Significantly, in the past several weeks at least two white players, and probably more, have lent their support to what many have perceived as a “black” movement.

Before Seattle’s contest with Minnesota last week, teammate Justin Britt stood next to Michael Bennett with his arm resting on Bennett’s shoulder.

Before the Aug. 19 game with the Giants, tight end Seth DeValve joined his teammates. After the game, DeValve said, “It saddens me that in 2017 we have to do something like that. I personally would like to say that I love this country, I love our national anthem, I am very grateful for the men and women who have given their lives and give a lot every day to protect this country and to service this country. I want to honor them as much as I can. The United States is the greatest country in the world, and 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. I want to support my teammates today who wanted to take a knee. We wanted to draw attention to the fact that there are things in the country that still need to change.”

DeValve, whose wife is African-American, added: “I myself will be raising children who don’t look like me. 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. I wanted to take that opportunity with my teammates to pray for our country and to draw attention to the fact that we have work to do. That’s why I did what I did.”

In this agonizing process of balancing players’ rights with locker room harmony and performance, the Browns may have found a commodity they have been seeking for years: a leader and a quarterback in one package.

Earlier this week, Jackson announced that rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer would start Saturday’s game against Tampa Bay.

As his teammates knelt and prayed while the national anthem played, Kizer, 21, made the wise move of a diplomat and leader. He stood next to his teammates, lending support while not actively participating.

“Obviously, this is a sensitive subject in our country right now,” Kizer said. He saw “an opportunity with my guys to support them on an awesome venture out there when they decided that they are going to pray in a time where this country is kind of all over the place in a sense of human rights and the racial movements.”

Kizer added: “I decided it was a time for me to join my brothers who decide to take a knee and support them while they were praying.”

Inside and outside of stadiums and arenas, protests are growing, not shrinking, as more citizens — football players and not — become stakeholders against intolerance and repression.

The billionaires who own NFL teams can ignore protests outside NFL headquarters in New York, but when players take the moral high ground and begin talking, the owners had better listen.

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of “Forty Million Dollar Slaves,” is a writer-at-large for The Undefeated. Contact him at william.rhoden@espn.com.