Sunday morning, football fans here will awake, put on a pot of coffee and don the jersey of their favorite Raven — assuming they haven’t already burned it.
As they approach M&T Bank Stadium from their tailgating positions for the Ravens’ 1 p.m. kickoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers, those fans, assuming they didn’t sell or give away their tickets in disgust, might gaze up in awe at the statue of Ravens great Ray Lewis, in full warrior-dance ecstasy — unless those fans were among the tens of thousands who have signed an online petition this week asking for the statue’s removal.
And then, just before kickoff, the PA announcer will ask everyone to stand, and gentlemen please remove your hats, for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — even though the Ravens’ official anthem singer resigned this week in protest.
And what then? Who knew that the act of standing for the playing of the national anthem, or of walking through a stadium turnstile, or, for crying out loud, of slipping an NFL jersey over one’s head could be considered a political statement?
But that is where the NFL is at the end of September 2017, in the first year of the Trump presidency: The many comforting rituals associated with NFL fandom, performed mindlessly and unencumbered by conscience on fall Sundays for generations, now are freighted with a symbolic weight nobody had been forced to consider until the events of the past 10 days.
And in many ways, Baltimore, a city with one foot in the north and one in the south, a city that witnessed the actual red glare of rockets and the bursting-in-air bombs that inspired Francis Scott Key to put pen to paper in 1814, is the symbolic epicenter of the NFL anthem-protest movement and its countermovement of anti-protest protesters.
Partly, that is a matter of timing. By virtue of their playing last Sunday in London, with a 9:30 a.m. kickoff on the East Coast, the Ravens, along with the Jacksonville Jaguars, had a head start on the rest of the league in determining how players would handle President Trump’s incendiary remarks from two days earlier, when he labeled NFL players who protest during the national anthem as sons of bitches and said they should be “fired.”
When a dozen or so prominent Ravens, plus former player Lewis, chose to kneel during the anthem in response to Trump’s remarks and the rest stood and locked arms — with the Jaguars’ owner, Shahid Khan, standing in solidarity with his players — it touched off a day of similar protests across the league that collectively inflamed the national debate over race, patriotism, policing and fandom.
And with another NFL Sunday almost upon us, the venom and emotion, in some cases coming in direct conflict with the equally powerful passions associated with being a fan, show no sign of relenting. Every franchise is suddenly dealing, in some way, with its own civil war, with some fans abandoning the team in disgust and others embracing it on an even deeper emotional level.
That is certainly the case in Baltimore.
A city divided
At the waterfront Hard Yacht Cafe in Dundalk, Md., owner Art Cox spent much of the week ridding the restaurant of all its Ravens paraphernalia and advertising, including 17 neon signs that were returned to Anheuser-Busch on Thursday and a large, purple-painted, Ravens-logoed buoy that until recently had bobbed on the water just past the dock.
“It just left in a dumpster,” Cox said Thursday of the buoy.
Cox had been standing outside the restaurant around 9:30 a.m. this past Sunday, just before kickoff, when he saw more than a dozen customers abruptly leave and head to their cars. Thinking there must have been a fight or something, he rushed in, only to have his manager inform him of what had happened in London during the anthem.
“The Ravens just took a knee,” the manager told him. “And we just lost a big group.”
After canvassing the rest of his customers, many of whom are season-ticket and personal-seat-license holders at M&T Bank Stadium, Cox arrived at a decision: The Hard Yacht Cafe will continue to keep its TVs tuned to the NFL on fall Sundays (because he had paid for the NFL package), but he won’t be building the restaurant’s marketing around Ravens games. He also hired a band to play Sundays, starting this week.
“We’re not going to ban or boycott it,” he said. “But in no way are we going to support or promote the Baltimore Ravens or the NFL.”
Of the hardcore Ravens fans among his customers, Cox said, “There’s a lot of PSLs and season tickets up for sale. From what I’m gathering, the folks who do go are going to tailgate with their friends, go in — and then after the anthem, they’re going to leave.”
Since last weekend, the Baltimore Craigslist ticket marketplace has filled up with seats for sale for upcoming Ravens games.
“In a protest to the kneeling and disrespect shown by Ravens players on Sunday, I am offering up two tickets at half the cost to a Pittsburgh Fan,” reads one post from a Ravens fan with seats in Section 530. “You must prove you are a Pittsburgh Fan prior to getting tickets.”
In some ways, Baltimore’s difficult time grappling with the issue of anthem protests is no different than any other city’s. A burned jersey looks the same in the end whether it was purple or green before meeting the fire. Search for “Ravens” and “jersey” on Twitter, and you will be bombarded with videos of fans burning uniform tops that retail for between $79.99 and $149.99 on the Ravens’ official website. Some of the videos feature audio of the national anthem playing as the fire consumes the purple fabric.
But in other ways, Baltimore is different. It is the city of Freddie Gray, the African American man whose death while in the custody of police in April 2015 touched off days of civil unrest, one of several episodes that made Americans question the methods of policing in African American communities and that eventually led to Colin Kaepernick’s initial protests last year.
In a city still largely defined and divided by race, the Ravens were always something of a unifying force, but that, too, has been tested by the anthem protests.
“My natural reaction was: I was excited to see all those players taking a stand, and that it wasn’t just two or three players — you had players, coaches, even some owners from other teams,” said Marcus McLain, a network engineer from Baltimore who also coaches youth football in the city. McLain, who is black, said he attends an average of two Ravens games per season. “They were all participating, just to say, ‘We’re tired of the disrespect.’ I think Sunday’s movement was based less on race and more on what Trump said.”
A polarizing icon
Baltimore is also the city, and the Ravens the franchise, of Lewis, a polarizing figure both inside and outside this region even before last weekend’s kneel-down in London.
This month, the Ravens considered signing Kaepernick, now an unemployed free agent, before team owner Steve Bisciotti began soliciting outside opinions over the wisdom of the move. After the team decided not to pursue Kaepernick, at least in part because of the public outcry, Lewis, a friend of Bisciotti, defended the organization’s decision.
“I’ve never been against Colin Kaepernick,” Lewis said in his role as an analyst on Showtime’s “Inside the NFL,” when asked about Kaepernick and the Ravens. “But I am against the way he’s done it.”
Somehow, from that clearly demarcated stance, Lewis has become a pariah to the anti-protest crowd — seen most vividly in the petition for the removal of his statue — thanks to the kneel-down gesture in London that Lewis says was misinterpreted.
“I didn’t drop to one knee in order to protest,” Lewis said this week on “Inside the NFL.” “I dropped on two knees, both knees, so I could honor God in the midst of chaos. . . . You hear people saying, ‘Oh, he took a knee.’ I absolutely did not take a knee.”
So, wait, Lewis is an anthem protester, an anti-protester, or neither?
“I took two knees because I have a First Amendment right just like everybody else,” Lewis explained on Baltimore radio station 105.7 The Fan. “. . . I’m not in the protesting business. I’m not into this, whatever Donald Trump wants to say — I’m not into that mess. But if these young [players are] doing what they’re doing, then I got to meet them where they are. I’m not in the league anymore, so the Trump comments don’t bother me. But they’re so out of order.”
Lewis’s clumsy attempt to claim the middle ground on this issue only proves how impossible a task that is. And McLain, the Ravens fan and youth football coach, is among those who wonder whose side Lewis is on.
“Hands down, the best linebacker of his era, easily. And the best-known player on the Ravens,” McLain said. “He was great leader because he was consistent in his approach. Well, off the field, in retirement, he hasn’t been consistent. You’re back and forth. It’s hard to say that he’s on a side. [But] I don’t think he supports the interests of what’s being fought for.”
Follow along with the convoluted circle of influence, and you will see why the concept of NFL fandom has become so complex and fraught with political weight these days: Bisciotti is friends with Lewis. Lewis helps convince Bisciotti not to sign Kaepernick. Lewis kneels in London. Ravens fans revolt. Fans draft a petition asking for the removal of the Lewis statue. The petition is addressed to Bisciotti.
“I will not stand for that kind of disrespect towards our country,” the petition, attributed to Eric Moniodis of Hydes, Md., reads, “especially from a legend such as Ray Lewis.”
The team has had no response to the petition, but the Maryland Stadium Authority said it would station extra security around the statue as a precaution. On Thursday, a lone man in a yellow “SECURITY” Windbreaker sat in a golf cart in the shadow of the stadium, next to the bronzed Lewis. No one else was around.
Will anything change?
During times of crisis, sports can be a unifying force for communities. Think of the New Orleans Saints after Hurricane Katrina, or the New York Yankees after 9/11. But this is different. Here, what is happening on the field, at least during the national anthem, is dividing people further, as is the president’s response to it. And whatever this Sunday brings, there seems to be little chance of unity. Minds aren’t going to be changed, are they?
“We all just need to back up and stop hating on each other,” said Toni Lekas of Timonium, Md.
Like many Ravens fans, Lekas, 62, watched on television with shock and disappointment last Sunday morning as the players knelt on the sideline in London during the anthem. But unlike most of those fans Monday morning, her job as a longtime receptionist in the Ravens’ administrative offices in Owings Mills required her to answer phone calls from angry fans calling to voice their displeasure and in some cases renounce their fandom, and their tickets.
There were more than 400 of those calls, with the angry people on the other end saying things like, “How dare they? I’m so embarrassed. On foreign soil. They are disgusting. F-ing thugs. Scum. They are animals. No values. Disgraced the flag. Disgraced the nation.”
By the end of a difficult day, Lekas had come to a powerful realization: “What I believe in and what [the players] believe may be different,” she said. “How I was raised and how they were raised may be different. It was the 400 phone calls. You just realize their minds are made up. But I wondered if anyone had thought to talk to the players and ask them why they were doing it. So I did.”
She spent much of the rest of that day asking questions of the players with whom she shares a workplace as they came and went.
By Wednesday, Lekas had written a 1,017-word Facebook post, shared 39 times as of Friday morning, relating her initial disgust at the Ravens’ protest, her difficult Monday at work and her subsequent epiphany: that different people can have different worldviews based on their upbringings and experiences, and that none are necessarily wrong.
“How can so many people be so angry and full of hate,” she wrote. “Don’t hate on these players. Open your minds and your heart and let’s find out about each other’s lives . . . And remember, don’t take what the players did personally. This was not about disrespecting you, our Country or our flag. If they take a knee sing louder, put your hand over your heart and say a prayer that they understand how strongly you feel about your values and say another prayer that you understand and accept theirs.”
On Thursday afternoon, she answered the phone at the Ravens’ headquarters and, when asked why she had spent the time and energy to write the Facebook post, she said, “I figured if I could change one person’s mind, it was worth it. Because I was that person, with that same viewpoint, before I really started to think about it.”
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