John Harbaugh on the Ravens' protests during national anthem: 'Things aren't going to be easy'

One day after the Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars opened a day of NFL-wide protests against President Donald Trump’s call for league owners to fire players who do not stand during the national anthem, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he supported his team and the “tough conversation” it had prompted across the country.

Before the Ravens’ 44-7 loss Sunday at London’s Wembley Stadium, honorary captain Ray Lewis and about a dozen players knelt while the rest of the team’s players and coaches stood and locked arms in solidarity on the sideline. The Ravens later stood for the rendition of “God Save the Queen.”

In a statement released midgame Sunday, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said the team supported the gesture “100 percent.” After a terse postgame news conference in which he said he agreed with Bisciotti, Harbaugh was more effusive Monday in his backing of his players.

“The truth of the matter is, or the way I look at it, I think that's a really good thing,” he said of the protests at his weekly news conference. “I think that's a good thing [that] it's getting talked about. I think it's something that's a positive. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be painful. It's a tough conversation, but as for us here, as a football coach, my perspective of our team, I love our players and I support our players. A team is about unity. A team is about one accord. A team is a brotherhood.”

He added: “Our team is united. We stand together as brothers. And I'm proud of that. It meant a lot, means a lot.”

Harbaugh, wearing a hooded sweatshirt embroidered with the phrase “Salute to Service,” said he would not take a knee in protest. But he indicated that the Ravens’ decision to “express themselves” was theirs to make, and he said he didn’t know whether players would protest before Sunday’s home game against the AFC North rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said Monday that the Steelers, one of three NFL teams to remain in their locker room Sunday during the national anthem, would be on the sideline this weekend. (Steelers offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan, stood just outside the tunnel with his hand over his heart during the anthem at Chicago’s Soldier Field.)

Ravens players aren’t expected to be made available to reporters again until Wednesday. After Sunday’s game, many said they were upset Trump had implied that they weren’t entitled to exercising their First Amendment rights on the field.

At a rally Friday in Alabama, the president declared that NFL owners should fire any “son of a bitch” who knelt during the national anthem, as San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick first did last season. The gesture was initially intended to draw attention to what protesting players said is a pattern of racist treatment by police.

After Trump’s remarks drew a strong rebuke by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the players’ union Saturday, the president on Twitter called for a boycott of the league if players who do not stand for the national anthem aren’t fired or suspended. Every team that played Sunday protested in some way, with some players linking arms and others sitting for the anthem. Even New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a friend of Trump’s who has been reluctant to comment on their relationship, said Monday that he disagreed with the president’s comments, calling them “just divisive.”

The fallout in Baltimore, the backdrop to Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner,” is likely to linger. A change.org petition to have Lewis’ M&T Bank Stadium statue removed had received nearly 9,000 signatures as of early Monday night, and sports talk radio Monday was aflame with impassioned attacks on and defenses of the Ravens’ protest.

“We have our disagreements,” Harbaugh said of the Ravens, speaking generally. “That's what a team's all about. That's the beautiful thing about sport. You have the chance to express that on the field of play. You may not agree, but you can stand together.”

Below is a partial transcript of Harbaugh’s comments on the protests from his weekly news conference:

“We talked about it last night a little bit. Our owner, Steve Bisciotti, addressed it. The players talked about it. it's an emotional issue all around. It's not a new issue. It's been around for a long time in terms of our nation.

“All the teams are facing this. It's a conversation that's taking place in locker rooms and living rooms and in boardrooms and in cafeterias and around the coffee machines.

“The truth of the matter is, or the way I look at it, I think that's a really good thing. I think that's a good thing it's getting talked about. I think it's something that's a positive. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be painful. It's a tough conversation, but as for us here, as a football coach, my perspective of our team, I love our players and I support our players. A team is about unity. A team is about one accord. A team is a brotherhood.

“My daughter's lacrosse and basketball and tennis teams, whether you're in a club in a high school, there's something about being a part of something that's bigger than yourself that demands that you lock arms and you stand together, whether it be in front of the flag or be for someone when they're having a tough time. That's what brotherhood, sisterhood, being a part of team is all about.

“And our team is united. We stand together as brothers. And I'm proud of that. It meant a lot, means a lot.

“The other thing, I think, to talk about a little is the fact that these things aren't going to be easy. They're not going to be something that's going to be resolved in a day. They're not going to be resolved in a week, but we are going to play the Pittsburgh Steelers this week.

“We are going to line up in a very important divisional game on Sunday afternoon, and it's going to be a sport. It's going to mean something. It's going to be the Baltimore Ravens playing the Pittsburgh Steelers for the division lead.

“So I'm trying to say the right things about all the big issues in our country, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that what we're for is unity. We're for standing together, and that's what a team's all about. And really that's all we can do. We're going to stand together on Sunday and try to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers. And they're going to line up on the other side and try to beat us. And in all honesty, that's our focus. That's my focus. That's what we're thinking about.”

Harbaugh then was asked about whether it’d be better to keep politics out of the locker room.

“Well, like I said, it's a great question. I totally understand what you're saying. I wish it was that simple. Every locker room is facing the same thing in every single sport. It's just the way it is. It's just the reality of the thing. I think everybody's got to make that decision for themselves in terms of how they're going to express themselves in terms of what they think.

“And it's hard for anybody to — you can't do that for anybody else. I mean, for me, I'm not taking a knee. If I'm taking a knee, it's to pray. That's what I'll be taking a knee for, and I'll be praying for our country, that we find a way to come together.

“I mean, America was created on a great ideal, the greatest idea ever, the idea of liberty for everybody, the idea that all men are created equal under the eyes of God. I'm praying for that. I'm praying that we come together. I'm not praying for divisiveness. I'm praying for unity.

“We had a chance, I had a chance, unbelievable, two times, to travel overseas with our military. I mean, there's no greater honor than that. You walk in the streets in the city in Turkey or in Afghanistan, the forward operating base, or in Iraq, and you walk with our military men and women personnel or the people that we were traveling with. I mean, it was a goodwill mission. We weren't in any kind of combat or anything like that. We were just over there in another land with Americans.

“And I can tell you, when you do that, when you walk next to an American or you see an American face in that crowd right there, you're unified. You're together. You're happy to see that face. Why? Because that's an American, that's a brother, that's a sister, that's somebody that understands we have the same value system. We stand for the same thing. We have our disagreements. That's what a team's all about. That's the beautiful thing about sport. You have the chance to express that on the field of play. You may not agree, but you can stand together.”

jshaffer@baltsun.com

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