BALTIMORE — Surreal, slightly insane day at the Ravens home stadium.
On the way into a football game, two grown men were dressed as American flags, their faces striped alternately white and red, with a blue panel on their foreheads with white stars. American flags waved from tailgates, Bob Seger and Aerosmith and other classic rock blasted from speakers. Scores of flag T-shirts and patriotic apparel, almost as many as Joe Flacco jerseys.
Twenty minutes before kickoff, to loud applause, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” played inside M&T Bank Stadium, followed by a short crowd chant of “U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!” A short while later, with each team on its sideline, the PA announcer asked minutes before the kickoff of the biggest rivalry game on the schedule—the hated Steelers were in town—for the crowd to pray “for kindness, for unity, for equality and justice for all Americans.” Most of the Ravens on their sideline kneeled and bowed their heads.
The crowd booed kneeling Ravens players bowing their heads in prayer.
“We knew it was possible that we would get it,” said Terrell Suggs of the Ravens. The team enraged many of its local fans when, in London last week, in response to President Trump urging owners to fire any “son of a bitch” who does not stand at attention for the anthem, many Ravens took a knee during the anthem.
But this was before the anthem. And this is what it’s come to in the NFL: fans so on edge they have no idea what they’re booing, or why. When you boo prayer, you’ve gone over the edge. Now, maybe the crowd booed, thinking the players were kneeling for the anthem. But the PA announcer spoke pretty clearly about praying for good for all Americans. And the boos came.
A few minutes later, every Raven and every Steeler stood at attention for the anthem. (There also was an Air Force flyover.) No booing then. During the first TV timeout, a serviceman was introduced to massive cheers. During the fourth quarter, seven servicemen appeared on the field, to more cheers.
The theme, at least here, after a rancorous and angry week with fans questioning allegiance to the Ravens, was to hammer home the patriotic and militaristic theme for the afternoon. The crowd ate it up.
And that was for the team that wasn’t in the anthem spotlight this week. Let’s get to the Steelers.
Last week, all but one player, former Army Ranger and starting tackle Alejandro Villanueva, stayed out of sight during the anthem last week in Chicago. On Sunday, 45 uniformed Steelers stood shoulder to shoulder in a perfect line, the only thing separating them a few coaches (who also stood at attention), including head coach Mike Tomlin. And after the Steelers’ convincing and uncharacteristic (for this rivalry) 26-9 pasting of the Ravens, the logical question was: Is it over?
“Who knows?” said Steelers president Art Rooney II, in a relatively subdued Pittsburgh locker room. “Who knows?”
The focal point of the media for the past week, Villanueva, hardly appeared happy after this game. It’s hard to say he was even relieved. Those who know him well say he’s a particularly mild-mannered person who hates the spotlight. So to be the major focus for days because he was the one Steeler who didn’t stay out of sight during the anthem last week at Soldier Field … well, it still peeved Villanueva a week later, and even after a rout of his archrivals.
“It’s sad,” he told a few reporters before getting surrounded by a larger group. “I’m tired of having the cameras in my face. We got the Steelers and the Ravens playing, and people are all talking about the pregame procedures … I understand you guys [the media] are trying to make money. In this locker room, we’re trying to win football games.”
I asked Villanueva how he felt being the unwitting face of this controversy for a few days.
“I think in life, you’re not prepared for a lot of things,” he said. “I don’t think you’re prepared to have a kid. I don’t think you’re prepared to get married. I don’t you’re prepared to start one day in the NFL. I think it’s one of those things you have to take in stride and do your best, stick to your family values, stick to the things that you’ve learned throughout your life and try to make the best possible decision.”
Listening to Villanueva, sitting uncomfortably with microphones in his face, you felt for the guy. But he made his position known, and he was lucid, and he was firm.
“I’m not a hero,” he said. “I didn’t do anything in the military that was outstanding. If you were to compare me to my peers, I was average at best. This was a very unfortunate chain of events, and I just tried my best.”
Everyone wants to know the endgame here. When will the wildcat anthem protests end, and what will it take to end them? Get educated by the Don Van Natta/Seth Wickersham story on ESPN and then consider what each side wants. The owners, clearly, want the players to stand at attention for the anthem. The players want the freedom to express their outrage at national events that they feel are getting short-shrift in national dialogue and action. Before Trump spoke up 10 days ago, a group of players was engaged with the league office, including commissioner Roger Goodell, regarding the league paying more attention to the issues of unfair treatment of minorities by law enforcement, and other civil rights concerns. I keep thinking that if the league can make a significant investment (and not just in money) in the matters the players are passionate about and that need attention—Seattle receiver Doug Baldwin, for instance, is pushing the revival of the DARE program, which promotes positive interactions between young school kids and police officers—then players will be inclined to work with the league on anthem decorum. I say “work with,” not “stop all anthem protests,” because some players clearly won’t want to make a deal with the league where it appears they were paid off to stop protesting.
It’s a complicated issue. It’s easy to say, “Just stand at attention for the anthem!” Easy, but clearly not what all players will do now, under almost any circumstances.