Defections from the left and right: NFL fans, players face unsettled times

"I'm an NFL fan, too, so you can definitely relate to the fan base a little bit in that respect and kind of see the little bit of a dilemma that they may be put in," said QB Joe Flacco when asked about it being a strange time to be an NFL fan. (Kevin Richardson)

Jim Althoff never fathomed turning his back on the NFL.

He watched the Colts win the 1958 NFL championship game on a 12-inch black-and-white television and stood in line for hours on Sunday mornings to gain entry to Memorial Stadium on $2 student tickets. Even his childhood team’s departure to Indianapolis could not kill his love for professional football.


That all changed last September when Althoff watched members of the Ravens kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the team’s game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 73-year-old Phoenix resident turned the telecast off and didn’t watch another game all season.

“What is surprising to me … is that I could just end it so relatively easy,” he said last week.


Judah Adashi, a 42-year-old composer and professor at the Peabody Institute, also walked away from the Ravens last season.

Adashi used to draw odd looks from his fellow classical musicians when he wore Ravens jerseys to work and even fantasized about apprenticing to general manager Ozzie Newsome. But he found himself wincing more frequently at violent hits and struggling to reconcile the NFL’s handling of domestic violence. And when his favorite team decided not to sign activist quarterback Colin Kaepernick before last season, that was the final straw for the civic-minded musician.

“To see that a peaceful protest could lead to you literally losing your job … I really started to look at it through an ethical lens and I saw a value system that didn’t fit,” Adashi said. “I saw a tension between my fandom and pretty much everything else I do.”

That Althoff and Adashi came to the same verdict from opposite perspectives speaks to the unsettled state of life around the NFL as the Ravens prepare to host the Buffalo Bills in their season opener Sunday.


The NFL remains the nation’s most lucrative sports league and its greatest driver of television ratings. But more and more, the league spends time responding to stories that have little to do with its on-field product. Once a uniting factor across political lines, it’s now a favorite social media punching bag for President Donald Trump. Polls show its popularity eroding among the white male conservatives who make up the president’s political base. In Baltimore, where the Ravens have traditionally drawn boisterous sellout crowds, fans left thousands of seats empty at M&T Bank Stadium in 2017.

Ravens team leaders show little interest in discussing the league’s politically charged state. But they can’t ignore it, and quarterback Joe Flacco said he sympathized with fans who don’t know what to make of these times.

“I’m an NFL fan, too, so you can definitely relate to the fan base a little bit in that respect and kind of see the little bit of a dilemma that they may be put in, or whatever you want to call it,” he said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, my job is to promote this game in a positive way and go out there and put a good product on the field. And, like I said, I want everybody to show up. I love everybody that shows up.”

Others seem puzzled by the anger that still boils around the anthem. “It’s actually really annoying,” safety Tony Jefferson said. “Fans are letting it affect the football side, and football is still the greatest sport in America. Let’s just let people have their opinions and move on.”

In the past five years alone, the NFL has faced sharp criticism for its lax response to domestic violence, its sluggish movement toward helping retired players with brain injuries and its waffling position on current players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

The last issue has haunted the league since 2016, when Kaepernick began sitting and then kneeling during the anthem to protest the unequal treatment of minorities in this country. Trump threw rocket fuel on the matter last season when he called on the league to fine or suspend players who did not stand. Trump’s Twitter rant prompted about a dozen Ravens to kneel during the anthem before the team’s Sept. 24 game in London.

Team president Dick Cass later called the protests an “emotional and divisive issue” that contributed to thousands of no-shows at home games. Fans also drafted a petition calling for the removal of Ray Lewis’ statue outside M&T Bank Stadium because the Hall of Fame linebacker kneeled before the game in London.

Almost a year later, the league and the NFL Players Association are still discussing a possible compromise after the owners passed and then halted a policy requiring players to either stand or remain in the locker room during the anthem.

Trump continues to bash the league in semi-regular Twitter posts. Meanwhile, Kaepernick — who hasn’t played since 2016 — has become a rebel hero backed by a high-profile new endorsement deal with Nike. “Believe in something,” he says in the campaign. “Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

Analysts have spent the week debating whether Kaepernick is to blame for the sportswear giant’s stock fluctuations, while the quarterback’s critics have posted photos of mutilated apparel with the company’s trademark swoosh removed.

The NFL finds itself squeezed from the left and the right, with some critics deriding it as unpatriotic and others as anti-progressive.

It’s an unfamiliar position for the 800-pound gorilla of American sports, which still produced 37 of the 50 most-watched U.S. broadcasts in 2017, despite a 9 percent decline in audience from the previous year. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll before the Super Bowl found a 9-point decline since 2014 in the percentage of people who follow the league closely.

“I think they have made it very easy to turn away from the game, to be mad at the people who run it, and that takes a toll after a while,” said Mark Leibovich, chief national correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and author of the just-published book “Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times.”

Leibovich is a New England Patriots fan who began his project thinking it would be a biography of quarterback Tom Brady. Instead, he watched the political climate around the league become more troubled, and more interesting, over four years of reporting.

“The left has always been more suspicious of the league — the over-the-top patriotism, the violence, the more traditional, conservative command-and-control structure of a football team,” he said. “But I think the right has now taken on football as an institution that’s really given over to political correctness and permissive liberalism. Trump has seized on that more than anyone. He’s made a culture-war critique from the right, and that’s made a real dent.”

As Leibovich listened to NFL owners — wealthy and powerful people in their own right — he noticed how deeply Trump’s attacks disconcerted them. Their worries struck him as shortsighted given the longer-term health and media problems facing the league.

The Baltimore Sun staff predicts who will win Sunday's Bills-Ravens season opener.

John Moore, general manager of the James Joyce Irish Pub and Restaurant in Harbor East, embodies both sides of the debate.


He felt incensed when he saw the Ravens kneel during the anthem on British soil. “Not one person on this earth has the right to disrespect the American flag,” said the native Irishman, who became a U.S. citizen in 1995. “How foolish and how stupid these people are, and how foolish the hierarchy of the NFL is for letting this happen.”


In response, Moore declined to renew NFL Game Pass, which allowed the pub to show all the league’s games. At the same time, he respects the Ravens’ contributions to Baltimore and will continue to show the team’s games at James Joyce.

“I could be arguing with myself,” Moore said. “But I’m a businessman, and the Ravens bring so many good things. So you have to account for that as well.”

Neither Althoff nor Adashi expressed regrets about cutting ties to the NFL.

Adashi said that when he goes to the gym and sees a Ravens highlight on the screens overhead, it’s like running into an ex-girlfriend. “But I know why the relationship didn’t work out,” the Peabody professor said.

For their part, the Ravens felt ambushed last season when Trump lashed out against the kneeling players as the team prepared for its overseas game. After a sleepless night spent discussing possible responses, they played listlessly, losing 44-7. A week later, fans booed them at home as they kneeled in prayer before standing for the anthem.

The Baltimore Sun staff offers predictions for the NFL season.

The Ravens, none of whom have kneeled during the anthem since the London game, knew it was possible Trump would unleash another provocative tweet about the protests as they prepared to open a new season against the Bills.

“I couldn’t give a [crap], to be honest with you,” said outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, the dean of the current roster and one of the players who kneeled in London.

Coach John Harbaugh didn’t plan to address his team about the possible distraction.

“No, we’re keeping it about football,” he said. “Keep it simple; let’s talk football. That’s what we’re here for. We’re here to play football, and we’ll do everything we can to do our best and in games. All that other stuff, to me, is just irrelevant noise. It means nothing to us.”

Safety Eric Weddle said the culture wars around the NFL would never distract him from his work but added that there’s no question the climate is different from the one he entered as a rookie in 2007.

“Oh, yeah, it’s a whole different game, just with the media and how much coverage you get. Everything is magnified — off the field, on the field, players, what they say on social media and with all the things outside of the game,” Weddle said. “It’s up to the person to really pay attention to it or not. I’m singularly focused on this team and my job, and what people say on the outside is up to them. You respect what they say, but you don’t really let it deter you from what your goals are and how you live your life.”

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