From Freddie Gray through Ray Lewis, Baltimore at the center of NFL anthem debate

Sunday morning, football fans here will awake, put on a pot of coffee and don the jersey of their favorite Raven — assuming they haven’t already burned it.

As they approach M&T Bank Stadium from their tailgating positions for the Ravens’ 1 p.m. kickoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers, those fans, assuming they didn’t sell or give away their tickets in disgust, might gaze up in awe at the statue of Ravens great Ray Lewis, in full warrior-dance ecstasy — unless those fans were among the tens of thousands who have signed an online petition this week asking for the statue’s removal.

And then, just before kickoff, the PA announcer will ask everyone to stand, and gentlemen please remove your hats, for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” — even though the Ravens’ official anthem singer resigned this week in protest.

And what then? Who knew that the act of standing for the playing of the national anthem, or of walking through a stadium turnstile, or, for crying out loud, of slipping an NFL jersey over one’s head could be considered a political statement?

But that is where the NFL is at the end of September 2017, in the first year of the Trump presidency: The many comforting rituals associated with NFL fandom, performed mindlessly and unencumbered by conscience on fall Sundays for generations, now are freighted with a symbolic weight nobody had been forced to consider until the events of the past 10 days.

And in many ways, Baltimore, a city with one foot in the north and one in the south, a city that witnessed the actual red glare of rockets and the bursting-in-air bombs that inspired Francis Scott Key to put pen to paper in 1814, is the symbolic epicenter of the NFL anthem-protest movement and its countermovement of anti-protest protesters.



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