Some Ravens step gingerly into political landscape, knowing it's fraught with tensions

In late September, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin visited Ravens headquarters in Owings Mills. The Maryland Democrat is a Baltimore native and a Ravens fan, but he had come this day to discuss criminal-justice reform. Sitting across from him at a table in the team cafeteria, two days from a win over the Denver Broncos and over two months from Election Day, was Matthew Judon.

It was important to the veteran outside linebacker that he listen to Cardin, engage him on the issue. After a training camp practice one month earlier, Judon wore to a news conference a black T-shirt emblazoned with a message: “More than 60% of prison populations are people of color.” At the bottom of the shirt was a hashtag: “#endmassincarceration.”

Judon did not expound then on his own activism or the fashion statement — “We don't have an agenda or anything. We're not trying to stick it to the man or anything” — except to say that he’d gotten the shirt from a teammate. He otherwise let the shirt speak for itself.

With Cardin, he was not so withholding. As issues like health care, the economy and treatment of minorities animate voters across the country and inside NFL locker rooms, with record turnouts for this year’s midterm elections, Judon acknowledged Thursday that the Ravens’ meeting with Cardin was empowering.

“It's a big deal because that's how you change stuff,” he said. “Just a tweak here and there's really not going to change stuff. But sitting down, talking to people, explaining my side of the story and hearing where they're coming from ... I felt like I can't just speak about it and, when I do have the opportunity to meet somebody like that, not go and speak to them. So that's why it was a big deal to me.”

More than two years after Colin Kaepernick began to protest racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem, the NFL is still uneasy with its recurring role in political quagmires. Commissioner Roger Goodell said last year that the league is trying to “stay out” of politics, only to have a new anthem policy, announced in May, halted two months later over players’ concerns about how respect for the anthem and American flag was being litigated.

Baltimore has been especially vulnerable to political tremors. In August 2015, over a year before Donald Trump was elected president, Ravens coach John Harbaugh called for the construction of a border wall: “You’re not a country without a border, right?”

Last season, Ravens legend Ray Lewis said team owner Steve Bisciotti passed on signing Kaepernick in the offseason because of a “racist gesture” by the free-agent quarterback’s girlfriend. Weeks later, a group of Ravens took a knee during the national anthem one day after Trump suggested that owners fire players who do so.

The Ravens know there are reasons to stick to sports. Kicker Justin Tucker, one of the team’s most popular players, said he doesn’t think players are obligated to use their platform to engage with politics, only that they use it “in the right way.” That can mean drawing a line somewhere, he said, as “we want to make sure we don't distract from what we're trying to do here in our building, out on those practice fields and then in our stadiums on Sunday.”

Judon called the politicization of football “a double-edged sword” for players. On social media, he feels the pull of countervailing forces: his own desire to speak up for what’s right, and the inevitable polarized backlash to whatever politics those statements might represent.

It is a perpetually fraught dynamic. When Harbaugh was asked about the organization’s civic engagements, including helping to register employees as voters and requesting absentee ballots, he said they were not his concern.

“My role is to coach the football team,” he said Friday. “I want them to vote. Vote, vote, vote! But you know what I’m really concerned with? Win! Win, win, win. I’m sure our fans want our players to vote, but you know what they want them to do more than that? Win, win, win.”

For some, though, a burgeoning political activism arose because of football, not in spite of it. This will be the first election in which Ravens wide receiver Chris Moore, 25, is registered to vote. He’s excited, hopeful he can effect change in the neighborhoods that, through his community work for the organization, have made clear that they need it.

That includes Baltimore. Moore said he’s helping to organize a fundraiser for air-conditioning units to donate to city public schools. He wants to create social-justice programs for community centers that better integrate police officers. And yet neither project, he believes, should be left to well-meaning donors to see through. They’re too important.

“When I’m seeing all that stuff, this is stuff that we shouldn’t have to raise money for,” he said. “Our government should have funds in place for this. So through voting, we can help put the right people in place to do stuff like that.”

As for which people those are, exactly? Depending on the player, there’s a better chance of getting the next week’s game plan than a political endorsement.

Moore said he registered because of “the things that I’ve been seeing in politics.” Tucker, who planned to vote by absentee ballot in his native Texas, grinned when a reporter alluded to the U.S. Senate race there between Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz, feigning ignorance. Judon declined to say whether he had voted or would vote in the midterms.

“Come on, man,” he said, before invoking his right not to incriminate himself. “Plead the Fifth. Plead the Fifth.”

Judon’s interests are simple enough. His daughter, Aniyah, is 3. Whatever he does or does not do — meeting with Cardin, voting, wearing T-shirts with provocative messages — he does for his family. For their future.

“I'm going to always want them to say that, ‘My dad stuck up for this and he spoke about this and he also acted upon this,’” Judon said. “So I'm setting a path for my kids to walk, and hopefully, it's easier for them than it was for me.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Edward Lee contributed to this article.

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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