The Baltimore Ravens Pick and Choose When to “Stay Woke”

The Baltimore Ravens Pick and Choose When to “Stay Woke”

In my series about changing the school system, I’ve written many times that while building or renovating school buildings is important work, attracting and training and engaging quality people to the work of educating kids is significantly more important and more difficult.

Waverly has struggled with this, as I’ve written. We saw this play out two summers ago, with the Maritime Academy. The school was in disrepair. Senator Bill Fergusson called the situation a systematic and institutional failure. The school system responded and rushed in to renovate the space. Six months later the school board voted to close the school.

This summer it’s the Baltimore Ravens that enter the facilities game, donating $1.5 million to rehab Renaissance Academy, a school that I’ve written a lot about in my series, Clear, Build, Hold. This is also a school that’s nearly been closed multiple times over the past several years.

The Ravens’ capital support of the school is a very nice gesture. And, alas, it’s the easiest possible way to show support for the city and the school system. To see whether or not the donation has any real impact we’ll have to check back in a few years. Real decision-making about the school’s future will now also have to be considered against this high-profile gift from the Ravens. You can’t really close a school that has the support of the Ravens, can you? On some level, perhaps this is a good thing. In any event, by giving to the Renaissance Academy the Ravens show that they are aware of the school’s challenge, if not “woke” to the broader, deeper issues.

It just so happens that the greater test of the Ravens’ commitment to the city, and its youth, is also playing out this summer. Joe Flacco has a bad back. His replacement, Ryan Mallett, has underperformed thus far and has a reputation for being less than dependable. The Ravens are thus contemplating bringing in Collin Kaepernick to provide some stability to the position.

Kaepernick, of course, isn’t just a quarterback. Last year he played surprisingly well. Given this performance Kaep, as he is known, should at least be able to get a back-up job in the NFL. To date, no team has hired him. Why? Because in addition to being a football player, Kaep has had the audacity to speak out and speak up about what it means to be Black in America, about what’s happening in cities across the country, about racial and social injustice. He generally does this in the most trenchantly intellectual, passionate, and inspiring ways. He’s also taken a knee during the playing of the National Anthem, prior to games. This last act of silent defiance seems like a step too far for NFL owners and it appears that he is being blackballed for his beliefs and his actions.

Baltimore is the latest team to consider Kaep. It’s clear that for Ravens’ owner, Steve Bisciotti, the decision to hire Kaep is much harder than the decision to give a million plus dollars to Renaissance Academy. As reported in the Sun: “I hope we do what is best for the team and balance that with what is best for our fans,” Bisciotti said in response to a question from a fan about how signing Kaepernick could ‘damage your brand.’ “Your opinions matter to us. … We’re very sensitive to it, and we’re monitoring it, and we’re trying to figure out what’s the right tact. So pray for us.”

Sorry, Steve— this isn’t about prayers for you. You are a billionaire and you own a team worth millions. You don’t need our prayers on this issue and asking for them is a clear sign of hedging and hiding. This issue is about making a very important decision—but one that affects the team’s on-the-field competitiveness only to a small extent. Kaepernick has directly confronted the reality that is Renaissance Academy, the reality that is West Baltimore, the reality that is Baltimore. Says Kaep: "I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder."

This bluntness makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It makes the NFL uncomfortable. It makes NFL owners uncomfortable. It makes some NFL fans uncomfortable. Fair enough. But should it keep a man from getting a job, especially in a league that overlooks so much other deplorable behavior? Jerry Jones, the Cowboys owner, says his players will either stand for the Anthem or be gone from the team in a few days. This is the same team, America’s Team, that has a long history of suiting up players of questionable character, including its newest star. The Cowboys are not alone in this approach to personnel. Talent, even with a rap sheet, almost always wins the day in the NFL. Kaepernick’s criminal record is clean, his talent is proven, if not elite, he has none of Mallet’s personal baggage, but he can’t get work. Who is it that needs the prayers?

The best news from the NFL this summer comes, again, from the Ravens. It has nothing to do with social justice or school buildings. It has everything to do with education and brains. A few days ago, John Urschel, a 26-year-old lineman for the team, announced he is retiring from the game to pursue a PhD in mathematics from MIT. Urschel’s decision comes in the face of a new study revealing that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease, effects 99% of studied brains from deceased NFL players.

This scientific fact might also elicit prayers from owners; instead, the NFL is ending its partnership with the National Institute of Health on concussion study. What’s the ultimate message here from the league? Give us your bodies, give us your talent, give us your brains—we’ll take all these things. Speak out, speak up in the wrong way, and your playing days will end up in the grave?

We all deserve our heroes. I grew up in Westminster. In those days, the Colts practiced at Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College). My family and I would walk up to the fields and watch the team run through its drills. The players were accessible. Artie Donavon and his fellow cronies would often drink up at a dump named “the Pit.” My mom remembers going to the Woolworths, a five-and-dive store that closed in 1992, and bumping into Bubba Smith in the checkout line.

The Ravens use to practice in Westminster. A few years back they elected to move away from their past and to the confines of their palatial facility in Owings Mills. It was a corporate move, motivated by finances and privacy and logistics. Donating large sums of money to school buildings and asking for prayers about personnel decisions are also corporate moves. This is a time of dire need for the city, indeed for the country. The Ravens, and their owner, should do better. You can’t pick and choose when you want to be “woke.” Those that can need to stand up—even if it requires, from time to time, supporting someone with the temerity to take a knee.