Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh talks about the team's decision to have some players kneel and some lock arm during the national anthem. (Kevin Richardson / Baltimore Sun video)
The issue of professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem to protest the treatment African-Americans receive from law enforcement had been largely confined to Colin Kaepernick, who infamously began the movement last season and now finds himself out of a job, and a few other players sprinkled among the more than 1,500 players on NFL sidelines each week.
That was before Friday, when President Trump inserted himself into the middle of the issue by saying at a political rally in Alabama that any player who disrespects the flag by not standing for the anthem is a "son of a b----" who should be fired. He encouraged fans to "leave the stadium" if these sorts of protests were going to happen. He doubled down on that talk in subsequent tweets.
Predictably, this past NFL Sunday became all about the protests, which expanded in scale and were surely as much about Trump as oppression. It began before the first kickoff, which featured the Baltimore Ravens playing the Jacksonville Jaguars in London. The Ravens, who had pretty much stayed out of this issue other than to pass on signing Kaepernick over the summer, joined the fray when more than 10 players, as well as retired icon Ray Lewis, took a knee during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
In this region, many fans were offended by what they perceived as the Ravens' disrespect to the flag, to veterans and to the country as a whole. Local online communities and radio airwaves were filled Sunday and Monday with those who claim to be season-ticket holders or longtime fans vowing never to attend another Ravens game and never again to watch them on television, part of a larger anti-NFL movement throughout the country that has seen uniforms and memorabilia being burned with boycotts threatened against the league and its sponsors.
It is worth noting that up until less than a decade ago, it was common practice for NFL players to remain in their locker rooms while the anthem was performed. We don't recall hordes of fans demanding that players show more respect for the flag, the anthem and the nation then. Perhaps that's a reflection of societal changes in the interim.
In fact, the national anthem is not regularly played before most gatherings. It is not deemed unpatriotic, for example, that the cast of "Hamilton" doesn't perform the "Star-Spangled Banner" before their actual performance or that the anthem isn't played before showings of "It." Even at sporting events, the anthem was rarely played before World War II.
Of course, doing something that clearly angers and offends so many is perhaps not the best way to be heard on an issue. Much like those who take to the streets in protest and impede traffic aren't going to get much sympathy for their cause from agitated drivers, doing something much of America disagrees with is probably not going to get people rallying around your issue. And that issue, police brutality against blacks, has largely been lost as our nation debates what exactly is showing patriotism and what exactly is showing disrespect for our national values.
Peaceful protest is protected by the Constitution. That was recognized eloquently in a piece of writing by an American president you may have read.
"Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy. Even if I don't always agree, I recognize the rights of people to express their views."
Those words were tweeted out by President Trump on Jan. 22. Eight months later he wants team owners to "fire or suspend" those players exercising that hallmark of our democracy. If his plan was to get people talking about something other than health care or North Korea, he was successful. But if he was trying to stop NFL players from protesting during the anthem, he not only failed, he motivated more players than ever to protest.
As for fans of the Ravens and the NFL, just as it is the players' right to protest, it is absolutely your right to boycott. There is nothing that says you must ever again watch a game in person or on TV or purchase another beer, car or snack food that is a corporate partner of the league. There is also nothing that says you can't change your mind when the Ravens play the Steelers this Sunday. It's a great country that way.