Ravens players and coach John Harbaugh offered measured reactions to the NFL’s new national anthem policy on Thursday, saying they’re more focused on their football jobs than on the swirling political controversy involving the league and President Donald Trump.
“My reaction to the anthem policy is I’m all about the football policy and winning games on Sunday,” defensive tackle Brandon Williams said, setting the tone for player responses. “Whatever person on the team wants to do what they do, I respect that. But my biggest goal is just to win games on Sunday, and that’s all I worry about. I’m just going to stay out the White House and worry about mine, and this is what we do is just football.”
Harbaugh said the team’s leadership will discuss how to implement the new policy, under which players will be allowed to stay in the locker room for the national anthem, but teams will be fined if players or other personnel are on the field and do not stand and “show respect for the flag and the Anthem.”
“That’s something that’s going to start with [owner] Steve Bisciotti and [team president] Dick Cass and [general manager] Ozzie [Newsome] and I’m sure they’ll ask my input on it, and I’m sure we’ll talk to our players about it, probably most importantly,” he said. “And we’ll try to do what’s right by the organization, by our fans, make sure our fans are on board with what we’re doing. To me, it’s a group thing. We’re all in this thing together. Beyond that, we’ll just abide by the rules.”
Trump praised the new anthem policy Thursday but doubled down on his criticism of protesting players, saying “they shouldn’t be in the country.”
Ravens players opted not to lash back at the president.
“He’s entitled to his opinion,” said linebacker Matthew Judon, who was among those who kneeled before the team’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars in London last season. “He’s the president, so we hear his opinion more than other people.”
Harbaugh earlier released a statement before the team’s OTA workouts on Thursday afternoon, saying: “I believe in standing for the flag. To me, the flag represents the ideas and the ideals that make us America. I also believe in the freedoms the flag represents and that people can speak for themselves. I know this: Our players respect the flag and what it represents. And, we’re all proud at the Ravens of the work they do to make this community and country better.”
Commissioner Roger Goodell portrayed the new rules as a way to move past a controversy that haunted the NFL over the last two seasons, when players, led by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, knelt during the anthem to protest the treatment of African-Americans in the United States.
But the Wednesday announcement prompted swift negative reactions from critics who said the owners had made no attempt to compromise with the players’ union and had rolled over for Trump.
About a dozen Ravens were among the players who knelt during the anthem the day after Trump slammed the protests last September. Players knelt in prayer before the anthem — and were booed for it — the next weekend in Baltimore. No Ravens players or coaches knelt during the anthem for the rest of the season.
If Judon plans to protest in the future, he gave no indication of it.
“I’m going to go out there and do my job between the lines, and I’m going to follow the rules,” the third-year linebacker said. “I can’t hit with my head, they’re changing the kickoffs, so they’re changing a lot of rules, and I’m just going to go along with them and be a part of this league.”
Williams said players will likely discuss how to handle the anthem once the season draws closer but haven’t delved deeply into the new policy.
“We touched on it a little bit, but we haven’t talked about it much,” he said. “We’re more worried about making sure these rookies know what they’re doing and getting ready for Game 1.”
Quarterback Joe Flacco said the new rules won’t affect him at all.
“I’m going to go out there. I’m going to stand for the anthem. And I’m going to play football,” he said. “That’s what we’re really there to do. We don’t want a ton of distractions.”
Second-year cornerback Marlon Humphrey went even further, saying he did not blame owners for passing the new policy without consulting players.
“If I was the boss, I really wouldn’t care what my co-workers think,” he said. “They’re our boss, so what they say goes.”
He added that players who want to highlight issues of inequality will “still find a way to continue to do that without having such a controversial way to do it.”
Harbaugh went out of his way to strike a conciliatory tone.
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“As far as all of our right to express ourselves and have our opinions and make this country better and better in every single way, we need to be doing that. And if people have different ways of doing that, who am I to tell someone how to do it?” he said. “If we do it in a way that’s respectful of one another, that’s what we should be doing. That’s where we get into the conversation of what’s respectful and what’s not. I’m not really sitting in judgment of that. I don’t have that judgment seat. I’m looking forward to coaching some football.”