Steelers Throwback Thursday: 2017 OTAs & “Free Martavis” movement

Steel City Underground takes fans back in time to feature events, special moments, and historical times and players in the world of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Steelers Nation. Join us as we revisit these moments in our “Steelers Throwback Thursday” series.

Organized team activities (OTAs) are underway across the NFL, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have assembled as well for the 2024 year. In this week’s “Throwback Thursday,” we look back at 2017 and the “Free Martavis” movement that had Steelers fans spreading the “trending topic” across social media in a roundtable of debate.

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“Free Martavis”: Martavis Bryant‘s return to Steelers

After being drafted by the Steelers in 2014, Bryant wasn’t immediately added to the offense but, once he proved to Mike Tomlin he was ready, he finished his rookie season with 26 receptions for 549 yards and eight touchdowns in ten games (3 starts). Bryant’s 21.1 yards-per-reception ranked first among NFL wide receivers that year.

Bryant was suspended the first four games of the 2015 season due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy, but would bounce back. Unfortunately, for the young man, he was suspended by the NFL for the entire 2016 season for the same offense.

The controversy surrounded whether or not use of marijuana, now legal in many states, was a “medicinal use” situation for the former Clemson star, or something more. Bryant sat down with Sports Illustrated in January 2017 for an interview.

“At first quitting [marijuana] was hard. I couldn’t sleep for four days. I would get frustrated. Mad. I’d yell, ‘Why can’t I sleep!’ but after about four days it got better… I smoked because I was able to. I’d do it whenever.” Bryant candidly admitted to SI’s Jacob Feldman.

On April 25, 2017, Bryant was conditionally reinstated by the NFL. He returned to the Steelers and prepared to be the starting receiver alongside Antonio Brown beginning in OTAs.

Things took a turn that season, though, with Bryant expressing disappointment in how he was utilized in Pittsburgh’s offense. The “Free Martavis” movement slowly fizzled out as it became more evident that bigger issues were at play. Bryant told ESPN he wanted to be traded, the team had no intention on doing so, ad JuJu Smith-Schuster emerged in Bryant’s absence.

In April 2018, Bryant was traded to the Oakland Raiders. He was subsequently given an “indefinite” suspension from the NFL that same year.

After a journey through various football leagues, Bryant (32) was reinstated to the league after his indefinite suspension began in 2018, and signed with the Dallas Cowboys for a short time in 2023. Just this past week, Bryant had a workout with the Washington Commanders per several sources.

Bryant’s story was polarizing. It highlighted issues young men entering the NFL may face and how they deal with the emotions and pressures of the game, but also illustrated changes in how society viewed use of “substances” the National Football League emphasized as infractions if used. Bryant’s story was not unique at the time, sadly, as other young NFL players fell into similar situations that resulted in the end of their careers in the league.

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