Some Ravens started talking about a form of protest late Saturday night, but no consensus was reached. Discussion continued Sunday morning when they met for a chapel service at Wembley Stadium.
Certain players were conflicted about how they’d respond to President Donald Trump’s comments Friday that criticized athletes for protesting during the national anthem. Other Ravens planned to kneel whether anybody was beside them or not.
When the national anthem began, about a dozen Ravens knelt while the rest of the team’s players and coaches stood and locked arms in solidarity. A similar scene played out on the other sideline with the Jacksonville Jaguars whose owner, Shad Khan, a supporter of Trump, joined his players and coaches in standing and locking arms.
The Ravens and Jaguars kicked off a day of protests in the NFL as players league-wide showed unity and solidarity, and defended their rights to express themselves.
“Very 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. It was very emotional for all of us. We all had decisions to make.”
The Ravens, who were routed by the Jaguars, 44-7, in their first-ever international game, had never before had a player kneel during the anthem. But among the players who took a knee before the game were wide receiver Mike Wallace and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Terrell Suggs, Matthew Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams, defensive tackles Carl Davis and Willie Henry, and defensive backs Tony Jefferson, Lardarius Webb, Anthony Levine Sr. and Marlon Humphrey.
Honorary captain Ray Lewis, a former Raven who met with President Trump after the election in November, also took a knee during the anthem, locking arms with Mosley and Wallace.
“Sometimes when you feel things go too far, you have to make a statement,” Wallace said. “I felt strongly about it. I will always back [unsigned quarterback Colin] Kaepernick and the message that he sent. After yesterday, it went too far. I just felt strongly about it today. So I did what I did. I didn't need anybody to tell me yes, no, whatever. That was just the way I felt. When I walked out on the field, some of my other teammates felt the same I did. So we did what we did.”
During a rally on Friday night in Alabama, Trump challenged team owners to get rid of players who protest during the anthem, and called on fans to walk out of games if such protests go on.
“That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for," Trump said. "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired.’ "
Suggs, who is one of the Ravens’ leaders, was one of several veterans to speak with Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti on the field before the game. It’s unclear whether the owner knew what his players had planned.
“We stand with our brothers. They have the right to protest,” Suggs said. “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.”
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.”
Khan also released a statement during the game:
“It was a privilege to stand on the sidelines with the Jacksonville Jaguars today for the playing of the U.S. national anthem at Wembley Stadium. I met with our team captains prior to the game to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump, and was honored to be arm in arm with them, their teammates and our coaches during our anthem.”
Trump drew sharp rebukes from around the sports world Saturday, including from basketball stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry. On Friday, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became what is believed to be the first major league baseball player to take a knee during the national anthem.
“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.”
Many NFL owners also weighed in, with John Mara and Steve Tisch of the New York Giants calling Trump’s comments “inappropriate, offensive and divisive.” Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, called them “callous and offensive.”
New England Patriots chairman and CEO Bob Kraft, a known Trump supporter, said in a statement Sunday that he was disappointed in the “tone” of the president’s comments.
“I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities,” Kraft said in a statement. “Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
Before their game against the Houston Texans, the Patriots locked arms on the sideline, one of a number of teams to go that route throughout the league.
Anthem protests started last year when Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, sat during the national anthem before a preseason game in August. Kaepernick, who later started kneeling before the anthem, said he was protesting social and racial inequality.
Kaepernick remains unsigned , spurring talk that he’s been blackballed because of his social activism.
When Ravens starting quarterback Joe Flacco was out with a back injury at the start of training camp, the team explored signing Kaepernick. Ultimately, the Ravens decided against it and they were widely criticized for their public flirtation with the free-agent quarterback.
Bisciotti said at a fan forum at M&T Bank Stadium in July, which was attended by Goodell, that he didn’t like how Kaepernick sat for the anthem, but he did appreciate how he went from sitting to kneeling. He also said “pray for us” after he acknowledged the team was weighing the decision. That comment led to much national criticism of Bisciotti.
Jefferson, a first-year Ravens safety, acknowledged that he was conflicted about kneeling because he didn’t want to disrespect the military.
“I put my hand over my heart because I felt like that was for the fallen soldiers,” Jefferson said. “I wanted to make this statement for the statement that was made by the president. It meant no harm to any of the other soldiers or anything like that, so I kept my hand on my heart personally because I’ve had family in the military. Personally, that was towards his comments that he made.”
Ravens who didn’t kneel said that they were happy to stand side by side with their teammates.
“Some guys kneeled, some guys stood, but rest assured, we all care. We all care about every form of injustice,” Watson said. “As a team, it was great to have the support from ownership. I feel like across the league, even the commissioner, there was a great response with those in leadership supporting our players. Anytime we feel like one of our brothers, whether it’s on this team or another team, is in some form or fashion attacked, we’re going to bind together. In the locker room, you have men from different places across this country. You have men of different religions. You have men of different ethnicities. But one thing we do is we stand for each other and we support each other. I think that’s part of what you saw today.”