Ravens fans, bars eye Sunday for sign of whether NFL protests will pass or continue
By Jeff Barker and Jean Marbella
The Baltimore Sun|
Sep 27, 2017 | 8:45 PM
Extra security has been added near the statue of retired Ravens star Ray Lewis at M&T Bank Stadium after he joined current players Sunday in kneeling during the national anthem. (Baltimore Sun video)
One fan plans to wear his Ravens jersey inside out. Others talked of selling once-prized tickets or leaving their seats following the national anthem. Still others yearned for a game that didn't feel like a cultural debate.
The Ravens and rival Pittsburgh Steelers have played 46 times but never quite like they will on Sunday: when the outcome of the contest will compete for attention with whether players will kneel again during the anthem and how fans will react.
"I think the story will be told this weekend," said Art Cox, who owns the Hard Yacht Cafe in Dundalk.
Cox said he expects Sunday to answer a couple of questions: Will fans abandon their teams in disgust over the players who kneel during the anthem in protest of racial inequity and police brutality? Or will the controversy, fueled by President Donald Trump continuing to denounce the protesting players, prove fleeting?
As of early evening Wednesday, nearly 40,000 people had signed an online petition on change.org that advocates for the removal of the Lewis statue "because of his refusal to stand during the National Anthem.
"That song honors our country and our veterans who fought for it," the petition reads. "To kneel during it is disrespectful, regardless of what you are protesting."
Given recent statue-related protests and vandalism, the Stadium Authority didn't wait until Sunday's game to take precautions.
Rachelina Bonacci, the authority spokeswoman, said additional uniformed security officers and other security enhancements were added starting last Sunday at the stadium, including statue plaza.
The Ravens weren't alone last Sunday. Many other NFL players took a knee during the national anthem in response to Trump's comments that called for owners to fire players who didn't stand for the anthem. Some teams didn't emerge from their locker rooms. Lewis said he was praying.
After last Sunday, Cox took down his Ravens decorations at the Hard Yacht Cafe. That meant the neon signs, the photos, the memorabilia and even a purple buoy that welcomed fans coming by boat to his tiki bar and restaurant on Bear Creek. He said he is incensed by the players' demonstrations, saying game day on the football field is neither the time nor the place for them.
"We have decided to no longer support the Ravens or the NFL," Cox said. "That wasn't a decision we took lightly. It's going to have a negative [economic] impact but my morals mean more to me than the bottom line."
While he feels Trump "baited this whole situation," he blamed the players for bringing a political protest into what should be their workplace.
"I think the president was wrong, but these players make millions of dollars and they have no regard for their fans," he said. "You want to protest the president? Fine. Do it on your own time."
Cox's daughter, Courtney Cox, a bartender and server, said some patrons walked out of the bar after the players took a knee.
"I'm not sure what to expect," she said of this Sunday. "I just feel it's going to be intense, kind of waiting, what's going to happen."
The volatile atmosphere caused confusion at some Royal Farms convenience stores over whether employees could wear purple jerseys Friday to show support for the team. Royal Farms is not a team partner, but kicker Justin Tucker has a deal to promote the chain.
A Royal Farms manager sent a memo this week to a small number of stores reading: "No one is allowed to wear Ravens gear to work."
Two spokespersons for the Baltimore-based chain of convenience stores said Wednesday that the memo was an error. They said the manager was not making a political stand but rather had been trying to make sure employees were not hassled by customers.
The company issued a statement Wednesday saying it remained "neutral" and pledging "to continue to foster a healthy atmosphere of respect, freedom of speech, and tolerance."
"I stand with the teams and I stand with the owners," Pugh said Wednesday. "I just think that people should have freedom of speech."
While social media is filled with fans claiming they will sell their tickets — and often finding more-than-willing buyers — others said they plan to go to the stadium. Some, though, are planning their own protests: one fan said he will wear his Ravens jersey inside out, others said they plan to leave early to signal their unhappiness.
Jonathan Price, 62, of Cockeysville said he and his wife plan to arrive in time for the anthem, stand for it, place American flags on their seats and leave.
"I don't know what else to say or do," said Price, who has had a seat license since the stadium opened and has attended almost every home game since then.
Price said he was saddened by the sight of Ravens players kneeling during Sunday's pre-game ceremony, and while he won't be selling his tickets or throwing out his memorabilia, he is approaching the Steelers game without any of the usual excitement.
"I just feel numb," he said.
Joe Sowinski, 71, also has had his seat license from the start, and plans to attend Sunday's game.
"I do not believe a fan should punish the entire team for the actions of a handful," said Sowinski, a Baltimore native who now lives in Delaware.
But he will wear an inside-out jersey of Ray Lewis, the retired Raven who joined current players kneeling on the sideline during the London game to express his objection to the protest.
Edwin F. Hale, Sr., founder of 1st Mariner Bank, plans to attend the Steelers game as well.
"We'll see how this all plays out," said Hale, a team owner himself, of the indoor soccer Baltimore Blast. "Hopefully it will get worked out."
Hale, a seat license-holder, said he “very strongly” opposes the NFL players’ demonstrations. When they began last season, with then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially sitting then kneeling during the anthem, Hale said he made clear to Blast coaches he wouldn’t tolerate any similar acts.
"If this happens with anyone, they're going to be removed immediately," Hale said he told his staff.
Hale said fans go to games "to root for the team. It's an escape for people." He predicted disgruntled fans would start "speaking with their wallets."
Hale, who knows Trump from having chaired the Miss USA pageant and bringing it to Baltimore in the past, said he doesn’t understand why the president ignited a controversy over the NFL. The league commissioner and a number of owners have voiced support for the players, and several corporations that sponsor the NFL have similarly — if carefully — worded pronouncements on free speech and unity.
Hale said he had expected Trump to address issues like taxes, but instead is baffled by how he'll — "out of the blue" — instead decide to speak out against transgender people in the military or now protesting NFL players.
"Why do that?" Hale said. "What is the purpose of that?"
The Ravens are “considering a couple of options” for who will sing the anthem Sunday, after Odoms resigned from his role with the team, a Ravens spokesman said.
The team has heard from at least 20 people with an interest in singing Sunday — including some celebrities — and have at least two in agreement to perform Sunday if invited.
Scott Albright, president of the Council of Baltimore Ravens Roosts — a fan group — said he has heard about fans planning to boycott the game or leave their seats early.
But Albright won't do either.
"My daughter and I go to the Steelers game every year," he said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Jeff Zrebiec contributed to this story.