COLUMBUS, Ohio — One by one Branden Bowen responded to each person who saw his decision to publicly share his personal political beliefs as an offense to them and other fans.
Some fans were frustrated.
Some were angry.
Many rebuked the soon-to-be redshirt junior for supporting something that they say has soured them on a game that once seemed impervious to everything — concussion lawsuits, cheating scandals, and even the appearance of a tolerance for criminal behavior, especially domestic violence incidents.
Corner Canyon alum and Ohio State lineman Branden Bowen said the issue that moved Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reed to their knees in August 2016 has bothered him for years, but last week, he found he couldn't remain silent any longer. And when he took to Twitter to defend and clarify the purpose of the protests, he did so with both patience and passion.
“I put a lot of thought into it,” he said of the football players’ decision to kneel (the suggestion of a veteran) during the national anthem as a way to protest police brutality that disproportionately targets black men and a criminal justice system that is inherently racist. “It is something that has been weighing on me for quite a long time.”
But it wasn’t until a former Buckeye, Malcom Jenkins, offered an unusual response to the president’s announcement that he was canceling the Philadelphia Eagles’ invitation to the White House celebrating their Super Bowl win. Incidentally, not a single player from the Eagles knelt in protest of the anthem during the 2017 regular season or the playoffs.
(Fox News did show the players kneeling as part of their coverage, but they were praying before or after a game, as one of the players involved pointed out on Twitter, which prompted a correction from the cable news network.)
Sitting in front of his Eagles’ locker, the safety didn’t say a word as reporters peppered him with questions after a team workout last week. He just held signs that expressed his views, starting with “You aren’t listening.” Then he held numerous signs offering statistics on the arrest and incarceration of black men and the names of those shot in confrontations with police in the last four years.
Bowen said Jenkins is a role model to him, and many of the Buckeye players.
“He’s actually around OSU a lot,” he said. “He comes to our captains dinner, and he was an honorary coach in the 2018 Spring Game. He talks to us a lot, offers us advice, and he’s a really down-to-earth person.”
As he watched one of his own endure criticism that many players come from a misunderstanding about what the protest is about, he felt compelled to support him, even if it was just through social media.
“I felt I needed to do my part,” he said in a telephone interview with the Deseret News, “in making a very, very needed change in this country.”
So for 11 or 12 hours, Bowen discussed, defended and clarified. It was an unusual move for a college player, the protests have occurred very rarely at the high school and college level due to the level of control coaches and schools have versus the employee-employer relationship that exists in professional sports.
He said he hasn't discussed the protests or the issues being raised by them with head coach Urban Meyer, but he has talked with assistant coaches, including former OSU wide receiver Brian Hartline who jumped into the Twitter fray in Bowen's defense, and they have praised his conviction, maturity, and especially his civility.
Bowen said he didn’t even consider that speaking out may hurt his own NFL opportunities.
“It hasn’t really crossed my mind,” he said, noting that if coaches asked him to be more private, he would probably do so. Like a lot of players, those who protest and those who don’t, he is involved in efforts to help disadvantaged communities, including those of color.
Bowen said he understands the frustration fans feel at having politics invade sports. But he said athletes cannot abandon who they are or how they feel, simply because they’re job is to entertain.
“I really think people who say (shut up and play) need to take a step back and remember that athletes are just human beings,” Bowen said. “We’re just everyday people who happen to play a sport and happen to be good at it.”
But he asks them to set aside their frustration and just listen to what the players are really protesting, not what looks politically expedient or outwardly patriotic. It’s what he did when he first saw NFL players kneeling. He felt like they were working for a better world for him and other people of color.
“People shouldn’t be afraid when they see blue and red lights in their rearview mirror,” he said. “That needs to change. I’ve had one run in in Ohio, and one incident when I was in school at Corner Canyon. … When I see those videos, I just feel like we need to make a change.”
And the fame that comes with that talent, he said, is not something he takes lightly.
“I’ve been blessed with this platform, and for me not to do something about something I care about, for me not to stand up on issues, I’d just be, in my mind, letting down the people who are affected by the issue. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t use what I’ve been given to help other people who don’t have that opportunity.”