Strong Sides


There’s no denying it: The past year has been a weird one for America. Unlike the media maelstrom of 2016, politics weren’t the only topic on the table. The news cycle instead obsessed over something that doesn’t always make the front page: football.

Technically speaking, the drama began two years ago, the first time San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the pregame national anthem to protest police brutality. Many fans objected to this stance and where he took it — football was no place for a protest, they said. But it wasn’t until a year later, early in the 2017 season, when President Trump weighed in with his opposition to Kaepernick and the other NFL kneelers, that a national pastime became a full-fledged national issue. Then, at a game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars, nine Ravens players and former linebacker Ray Lewis knelt during the anthem. Back in Baltimore, fans reacted.

“I decided to boycott when I found out they were refusing to stand for the anthem and the flag,” says Dave Batten, a Vietnam veteran living in Towson. “These [players] are men that enjoy the freedoms other men have purchased with blood and sweat, men that make millions of dollars, that don’t have an understanding of the history of this country. I’m not willing to spend my money or my time on them.”

Batten certainly isn’t alone. Longtime fans across the country declared their inability to tolerate players’ behavior toward the flag and anthem, echoing his view that “they have a right to protest, but not on the field.”

But those who opposed Kaepernick and anthem protests weren’t the only ones finding alternate ways to spend their Sundays. Take Ralph Moore of Baltimore, who stopped watching football because of the way Kaepernick was being treated.

“The issue Kaepernick raises is very real,” he says. “Between white America and black America, there are two different experiences. It pains us to see Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray. I think most of us would admit that we don’t think all police officers are guilty of being brutal, murderous and insensitive. But there are enough to make all of us upset.”

Moore says that the NFL’s failure to sign Kaepernick to a team for the 2017 season is itself reason to protest.

“The fact that he wasn’t able to get hired when he’s still young and talented — there are 32 possibilities [teams]. It seems as if they, in an organized way, consciously decided to leave him out,” he says. “People say they don’t want to see [the protest], they came to see a football game, shut up and play. I don’t think there’s a sharp line between being a sports star and having the right to express one’s views.”

Despite the difference between Batten’s and Moore’s points of view, however, the result is the same: They’re not watching football anymore. And while attendance at M&T Stadium is not quite the cataclysm folks on either side would have you believe, it is going down. The Ravens’ season attendance usually reaches above 568,000 in any given year; in 2017, it was 565,000. Not a huge difference compared with Washington’s 25,000 drop in attendance for 2017 (or, for that matter, the Orioles’ 26 percent attendance drop, thanks to their abysmal 2018 season), but a difference.

In May, the NFL announced that players would now be required to either stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room. But for both Batten and Moore, the new plan doesn’t change a thing.

“It’s a silly political attempt to restore some credibility to those people that own and play in the NFL,” Batten says.

Although for opposite reasons, Moore is equally upset. “They’re calling it a compromise,” he says. “but that’s hardly true. They’re stepping on the rights of players, who have every right to express themselves.”

As if things weren’t complicated enough, there’s also a whole subset of people who aren’t watching football for other reasons. A number of people, including Baltimore native and nationally known author Ta-Nehisi Coates, have publicly vowed never to watch football again because of the danger it poses to the players.

There are opposing teams with this issue, too. Consider the viewpoint of Dr. Kevin Crutchfield, neurologist and concussion specialist at LifeBridge Health’s Sports Medicine Institute, which serves many members of the NFL. “It makes for good hysteria,” he says of a July 2017 report that revealed that 111 out of 112 deceased NFL players had CTE, a degenerative brain disease believed to be caused by repeated head injury. “But they were all in trouble and had sent their brains to Boston. Do you know how many men have played in the NFL? Thirty-four thousand. So it’s really more like 111 out of 34,000.”

He has strong words for the boycotters who are passing on football because of the concussion risk: “Should we protest automobiles because people get head injuries in car accidents? Why aren’t we protesting the winter and the ice that makes people fall down and hit their heads?”

We heard from fans who turned off the game because the Ravens haven’t been that good lately: “I stopped watching and going to games because the Ravens have had a poor showing over the last few years,” writes Natalie Savage in response to a Style request for comments.

Sports commentator Nestor Aparicio of WNST disagrees with this line of thinking. “I can’t get into the mindset of someone who would say ‘I’ve been a Ravens fan all my life’ or for the last 22 years or whatever and then say they stopped watching because the Ravens aren’t winning,” he says, adding, “It’s hard to win. They’ve won [the Super Bowl] twice in 15 years. That puts them way ahead of a lot of teams in the NFL.”

If you’re reading this thinking, “Hey, I still watch the Ravens,” don’t worry, you’re not alone. Dave Rather, owner of Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, a prime pregame bar, says that while politics, performance and other factors have caused some fan fluctuation, there’s still a strong showing of jersey-clad fans on the Purple Patio each home game.

“I love the team and I love football. Business comes second,” he says. “I support the police force, but I believe that no one should be treated badly or injured by a person of authority. I support free speech. I support the military. I love the Ravens, and a two-minute protest isn’t going to change the way I feel about the organization.”

For now, Rather is going about business as usual — ordering kegs, considering his chicken-wing selection and prepping the patio for the purple hordes. There’s no telling what the season will bring, but he’s ready for some football.

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