Ravens national anthem protest — first in a series in NFL — draws praise, anger from fans

After Ravens players took a knee during the national anthem Sunday — the first in a series of protests across the NFL — many Baltimore fans said they were supporting the demonstration as a way to speak out against racial inequality in America.

But others reacted angrily, describing the protests as anti-patriotic and promising to boycott the NFL and destroy their Ravens gear.

“The embarrassment that is the NFL continues and people wonder why I am on strike,” Harford County Sheriff Jeffrey Gahler posted on Facebook. “Ravens join the non sense of taking knee while on the soil of the Country we gained our independence from. Will be doing a housecleaning of any Ravens merchandise later today and getting it all ready for the burn.”

The team’s morning game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars was the first NFL game after President Donald Trump profanely lambasted some players at a rally over the weekend and encouraged team owners to fire those who protest during the anthem.

“That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for," Trump told supporters Friday in Alabama. “Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now.’”

Most Ravens players and coaches locked arms during “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Wembley Stadium. About 10 Ravens kneeled. They included wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs and Za’Darius Smith, defensive tackle Carl Davis and defensive backs Tony Jefferson, Lardarius Webb and Anthony Levine Sr.

Former Raven Ray Lewis, an honorary captain for the game, also took a knee during the anthem in between Mosley and Wallace.

It was the first time any Raven player has showed any form of protest during the anthem.

On the other sideline, Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan, a supporter of President Trump, joined his players and coaches in locking arms.

The players stood during “God Save Our Queen,” the British national anthem.

“​V​​​​​ery emotional this morning,” Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said. “A lot of guys were upset about the things President Trump said, were upset that he would imply that we can’t exercise our First Amendment rights as players. We were upset that he would imply that we should be fired for exercising those rights.”

Said Suggs: “We stand with our brothers. They have the right to protest. We knelt with them today. Nonviolent protest is as American as it gets. We knelt with them today and let them know we are a unified front. There is no dividing us. I guess we're all sons of bitches.”

Trump responded to the protests on Sunday.

“This has nothing to do with race,” he said. “This has to do with respect for our country.”

“We have a great country,” he added. “We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers our first responders and they should be treated with respect.”

The demonstration was welcomed by many fans who gathered at the bars in Federal Hill to watch the game.

Outside Cross Street Market, Mike Smith, 36, said the protest was “achieving its goal” of raising awareness about social justice. The Northeast Baltimore man, who wore a Matt Stover jersey, said Trump had provoked the players.

“A lot of it is based on what’s going on with the president and calling people” names, he said. “You’re not supposed to do that. You’re the boss. The boss don’t talk like that. It’s the language. It’s the threats. It’s the petulant behavior. There’s a domino effect.”

The protests were launched last year by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick sat during the national anthem before a preseason game in protest, he said, of social and racial inequality after a series of black men were shot and killed by police officers. Later, he knelt during the anthem.

After last season, Kaepernick opted out of his contract to become a free agent. He remains unsigned. Some believe he has been blackballed for his social activism.

More than 100 players across the NFL sat or knelt during the anthem Sunday. The Pittsburgh Steelers remained in their locker room as the national anthem played before their game with the Chicago Bears.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin stood by himself on the sideline. Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three deployments in Afghanistan, stood at the opening of a tunnel with his hand over his heart.

The Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks also decided against appearing on the field during the national anthem.

The Seahawks announced nearly 30 minutes before kickoff that they would not stand for the national anthem because they “will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.”

The Titans followed 10 minutes later by saying they would remain in the locker room during the national anthem. They posted a statement on their website noting they want to be unified as a team, and the players decided jointly that staying inside was the best course of action.

The team also said their commitment to the military and community is “resolute” and that “the absence of our team for the national anthem shouldn't be misconstrued as unpatriotic.”

In Federal Hill, Ravens fan Andrew Nicklas, 33, said he supported the Ravens players who protested.

“Why shouldn’t they?” the Baltimore man asked. “It’s a constitutional right. Good for them. It’s something everyone should be far more concerned about than they are. This is an important cause.”

Fellow Ravens fan CW Judy, 34, of Annapolis, said the players were right to stand up to the president.

“Trump is talking about NFL players like they’re thugs,” Judy said. “I think it’s completely admirable. I’m behind them all the way.”

Many on social media took the opposing view. Angry posters on the Ravens Facebook page called team owner Steve Bisciotti a “pathetic disgrace,” and vowed to boycott the team.

“Revoke their passports and leave them in the U.K.,” one poster wrote.

In a telephone interview, Gahler, a former Maryland state trooper, said he had a big-screen TV in his basement just to watch the Ravens. Now, he said, he’ll find something else to do with his Sundays.

“My father served. My grandfather served. Too many people have given too much for the flag and for our country for it to be disrespected,” said Gahler, a Republican who was elected Harford County sheriff in 2014. “This is not to say we don’t have problems, but a lot of men and women have died for that flag.”

Bisciotti spoke to several of his veteran players on the field before game, including Suggs, Levine and tight end Benjamin Watson.

In a statement released by the team during the first quarter of the game, Bisciotti said: “We recognize our players’ influence. We respect their demonstration and support them 100 percent. All voices need to be heard. That’s democracy in its highest form.”

Trump’s comments also prompted a response from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in a statement. “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we've experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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