Ravens players knelt as a team before the national anthem began at their home game Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers, sparking loud boos from the hometown crowd, which had been invited to join them in prayer.
The prospect of anthem protests — will they kneel or not? — had buzzed among fans all week. On Sunday, a plane over M&T Bank Stadium trailed a banner demanding “Stand and respect our flag.”
Both teams stood for the anthem.
The Ravens’ decision walked a fine line that allowed fans such as Carrie and Steele Dillinger to remain in the stadium — instead of following through on their vow to leave and give up their season tickets if team members knelt through the song. Most fans stayed for the game.
“It wasn’t during the national anthem, so we didn’t have a problem with it,” Carrie Dillinger said.
The couple had been livid about players kneeling during the anthem in London last week, the first of that day’s leaguewide protests, and the start of a week-long public debate about the role of athletes, race, politics and patriotism in America’s most popular sport.
“I don’t know anyone who can go to work and protest,” Carrie Dillinger said. “You can’t command respect on an issue when you’re drawing attention to it by disrespecting something else.”
Steele Dillinger had promised before the game: “If they kneel during the anthem, I’m done. We’re not wearing our Ravens gear today, as our own protest. They need to honor the flag.”
To others, the brief kneeling was a disappointment.
“It’s a cop-out,” said Julz Harvey, a 21-year-old graduate student at Towson University. Before the game, she said she was “proud” that Ravens players had stood up for something. “I hate that it took them so long.”
Her uncle, though, decided to leave.
“I understand where my family is coming from,” she said. “They just want to suspend their politics to watch the game.”
But she added that people who endure racial injustice aren’t able to suspend it just because a football game is on.
Alisha Hicks, 38, a Steelers fan from Chester, Va., said she was upset to hear people booing the Ravens during a prayer.
"People can't pray now?" she asked. "They're going to boo during prayers now?"
Randy Lynn, 40, said he couldn’t fathom how a legitimate protest about racial injustice has been subsumed by talk of respecting the flag.
“It’s not about the ... flag,” said Lynn, an accountant from Baltimore who said he served seven years in the Army. “It’s about killing black people.”
“I say, ‘Look, give me your tickets,’ ” he said. “It’s not against the flag. It’s against the injustice that the police are killing unarmed black people and getting away with it.”
Ravens outside linebacker Terrell Suggs said the players knew it was possible they were going to get booed.
“We just wanted to show to our fans that we still do stand in solidarity, but we don’t want anybody to lose the narrative of why we’re doing it,” Suggs said. “We don’t want people to think we’re disrespecting the flag or the military or anything like that.”
Ravens tight end Ben Watson said it’s the fans’ “prerogative to boo or not to boo. Fans pay for their tickets and they get to say what they want to say. We decided as a team collectively to just have a moment of silence with everything that’s going on. We wanted to pray for unity, we wanted to show the unity amongst each other, and that’s what we decided to do.”
Red, white and blue mingled with the normal Ravens purple Sunday. Vendors seized the business opportunity, selling “I STAND FOR THE NATIONAL ANTHEM” T-shirts and Uncle Sam hats.
The current wave of anthem protests was launched last year by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. He sat during the anthem before a preseason game to protest police brutality. He eventually modified the protest, kneeling during the song instead.
A few other players joined him last season. Then President Donald J. Trump said before last week’s games that the NFL needed to fire any "son of a bitch" who "disrespected the flag."
Members of the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars, who played the first game last Sunday because they were in London, knelt during the anthem at Wembley Stadium.
Former Ravens linebacker and franchise star Ray Lewis joined them, prompting an online petition to take down his statute outside the Baltimore stadium. Lewis later said he dropped to both knees to “honor God.”
By the end of the day, hundreds of players had followed their example. Some fans supported the move; others did not.
"Fans who attack players for protesting, (a right in which I fought to defend) but are simply not interested in understanding why, is the reason I am resigning,” Joey Odoms wrote on social media.
The Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, in London Sunday, played the first of the Week 4 games. Some players took a knee before the national anthem. Most players rose and linked arms during the song.
In Baltimore, the Steelers stood during the anthem. They were one of three times that did not appear on the field for the anthem last week.
Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco said the team hasn’t had extended talks about what they will do going forward.
“I would like to believe that we addressed it, and we feel good about it, where we are as a team, and now we can move on, and like I said, get back to playing football,” Flacco said.
For Lenny Moore, the Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts running back who played from 1956 to 1967, the anthem protests have been a reminder of being one of only a few black players on the team. He tailgated Sunday and took pictures with fans.
"When I came into the league, there were places I couldn't go and things I couldn't do,” he said. “You had to be cool. You couldn't run your mouth.”
The NFL has changed over the years, Moore said. But the protests — and the reaction of fans who threatened to burn jerseys and stop supporting the team — showed home that some underlying problems remain.
"Everybody knows it's a race issue," Moore said. "It's always been a race issue. It hasn't left."
Karen Elder said that when she was a little girl, her mother told her she did not have to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school, because black people like her didn’t receive all the benefits the pledge promised.
“When they say unity for all, and justice for all, it wasn’t really for all,” said Elder, now 54. “It was for a smaller group of people.”
Elder said before the game that she’d be disappointed if the Ravens players did not kneel for the anthem.
“They’d be pressured to change their opinion,” she said. “What’s the problem with a peaceful protest?”
As for people who threatened to leave the game, she said, “it’s almost like saying: ‘Stay in your place.’ ”
Cousins Jeff Hoopes, a contractor, and Tim Franklin, who retired from the Navy, walked out.
“We pay them to entertain us, not give us their opinions,” said Franklin, 60. “The message is 100 percent fine. The timing is so bad.”
Hoopes, 55, said players demonstrating during games creates division, and that wasn’t what he wanted out of a sporting event. He said he agrees with their message. But he left after they knelt.
“You’re hurting the country,” he said. “You’re dividing it. You’re creating prejudice. People think you’re doing it because of the flag.”
Hoopes said he didn’t “need a bunch of entertainers telling me about how I need to be kind. … I come down here to be entertained by them, not to be preached to.”
Sandy Coho, 54, of Edgewood, said she attended last week’s game in London. She considered it a “mockery” that the players knelt instead of standing and facing the flag during the anthem on foreign soil.
“The anthem is just words to me,” she said. “For me, it’s about the flag. … I think they owe us an apology for doing it in London. Then they didn’t come out to play. They had too much other stuff on their minds.”
She wore a bright red beehive wig, an American flag shirt, and red, white and blue Mardi Gras beads — a stars-and-stripes version of her weekly “RavHons” costume. Gesturing to her ensemble, she said, “This is not desecrating the flag.”
Wes Yeary said before the game he wouldn’t tolerate another protest. He swore he’d give up the season tickets he’s held for 21 years if he saw anyone take a knee.
“I’ve been a season ticket holder since day one,” said Yearly, 51. “If they protest, we’re out before kickoff. We’re done.”
He banished the Ravens flag he normally flies beneath the American one on the flagpole in the bed of his pickup. The tractor-trailer driver from Pasadena says a football field is no place to protest racial injustice.
“How about these million-dollar athletes, on their days off, link arms with the poor people in this city and march on City Hall or the Police Department instead?” Yeary asked. “It’s the wrong forum. A lot of men and women died for that flag. ... I know black people think they’ve been mistreated. But so have some white people.”
After the players knelt during the prayer, not the anthem, Yeary decided to stay.
“Had no problem with them kneeling before the anthem,” he said.
Til Strudwick, 67, of Baltimore, came to the stadium, without a ticket, only to see how the Ravens handled the anthem. He said his father earned a Bronze Star in Korea.
He was shocked more fans didn’t leave.
“I really thought people were angrier,” he said. “They’re more interested in Ravens-Steelers than they are in the values of our country and respect for the flag.”
Instead of watching the game, Strudwick planned to take a walk to Fort McHenry, wearing a Baltimore Colts jacket in protest of the Ravens. For the rest of the season, he said, he’ll skip the game and visit Baltimore museums instead.
“My emotional attachment to the team is done,” he said. “Every time I see them kneeling, I think of my dad.”
Across the parking lot, another group of fans shook their heads about the whole controversy, saying it shouldn’t be a controversy at all, and it has nothing to do with the flag or the anthem.
“They miss the whole point,” said Jacqueline Boone Allsup, a fan who is also former head of the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP. “They just don’t understand the real issue. Or they just don’t want to understand the real issue.”
Troy Yarborough, a 46-year-old Navy veteran who served in Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan, appreciated the Ravens' decision to pray, then stand Sunday — a display of unity, he said.
If the NFL wants to address the protests, Yarborough said, the league needs to figure out how to use its money and power to show that it understands the underlying racial problems and wants to help fix them.
"Now let's go about doing something about it," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Childs Walker contributed to this report.