BEREA — Free speech may be protected by the First Amendment, but it’s not the No. 1 priority in the Browns locker room.
Coach Romeo Crennel gathered the players after practice Wednesday, told them not to let politics become a dividing force within the team and warned them to avoid the rancor prevalent in today’s political arena.
“Their politics are their politics as long as they don’t interfere with the team,” Crennel said Thursday. “My main concern is that they don’t get on the soap box here in the locker room. That’s why the ballot is a secret ballot when you go vote.”
He was prompted to call the meeting by backup quarterback Brady Quinn’s appearance at a Wednesday rally for Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Left tackle Joe Thomas was also on stage, proving he can play the right side, too.
Quinn introduced McCain in front of a crowd estimated at 5,000, but didn’t enter the locker room Thursday during the interview period.
“As long as he keeps it outside the building and outside the team, that’s his choice,” Crennel said.
Quinn’s political detour — he also rode the McCain tour bus — received local and national attention and made politics into a hot topic in the locker room. They were also a touchy subject.
On his way to the shower, special teamer Kris Griffin overheard a reporter ask defensive lineman Shaun Smith about Quinn’s big night.
“The RAC rule,” Griffin shouted, calling Crennel by his nickname. “Don’t talk about politics.”
While it may not be the most democratic practice, Crennel’s job isn’t to uphold the Constitution, but rather to win games. With a 1-3 record, Crennel can’t afford any distractions as he tries to turn around the season Monday night against the Giants, who are 4-0 and the defending Super Bowl champions.
“I let the team know that we come first, the team comes first,” Crennel said. “So they have to prioritize.”
Crennel said he hadn’t felt tensions rise as the election nears, and that the speech was a pre-emptive strike. Kicker Phil Dawson echoed those sentiments.
“Of all the election years that I’ve been here, this has been the calmest one,” said Dawson, in his 10th year in Cleveland. “I’d like to think we’ve got a group of guys around here who get along well enough where even if we disagree on stuff like that it doesn’t divide us.”
Dawson has been known to lean to the right, but didn’t want to go there Thursday.
“I’m staying private,” he said. “I just found in my experience it’s better to keep it quiet.”
Dawson and center Hank Fraley said they didn’t know if the locker room favored McCain or Democratic candidate Barack Obama, and there weren’t enough players available to conduct a poll.
Players obviously fall on both sides of the debate. Smith said he was an Obama guy “for the most part,” and veteran linebacker Willie McGinest appeared at a rally over the weekend with Cavaliers star LeBron James promoting voter registration.
“I don’t think anybody else motivated me or gave me the inspiration to want to get up and go vote,” McGinest said of Obama.
Receiver Donte Stallworth said he saves political discussion for his own time, but he supported Quinn’s role at the rally.
“It’s huge. I was excited for him,” he said. “To be able to meet someone of his position, his power, it’s real good for him personally.”
Fraley, a salt-of-the-earth guy who tailgates after games, summed up the view of the offensive linemen, and perhaps a larger chunk of the locker room.
“We like to try to argue a little bit. But half the time, none of us knows what we’re talking about,” he said. “We’re football players, we’re not politicians.
“Brady representing McCain, that’s his deal. That’s why it’s America, you have the right to do what you want.”
Just don’t let it interfere with the team.
“We’re all about the Giants,” Fraley said. “(Crennel) wanted to make sure politics are politics, but teammates are teammates.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.