Given the many empty seats in NFL stadiums this year – empty for reasons ranging from protesting and kneeling players to terrible teams (Cleveland Browns) not even giving their fans a reason to show up – one front office has bunked conventional neutral standards. Baltimore Ravens President Dick Cass, in a holiday letter to season-ticket holders, acknowledged that the team is concerned about no-shows during a playoff race (the Ravens are in contention for an AFC Wild Card slot). One reason he outlined was the dozen players kneeling before a game in London against the Jacksonville Jaguars during the National Anthem (after which, they stood for the playing of the U.K.'s God Save The Queen). From the letter:

We had the poor showing in London, complicated by the kneeling of a dozen players during the National Anthem. That became an emotional and divisive issue. We know that hurt some of you. Others saw it differently and welcomed the dialogue that followed. Others bluntly told us to keep statements and protests out of the game. There are some of you who have stayed away from our games.
We have had significant numbers of no-shows in the past when our play on the field has not met the high standard we and you have set for the Ravens. But this year has been different. The numbers are higher, and it is noticeable. There are a number of reasons for the no-shows, but surely the one-time protest in London has been a factor.

The Ravens going out and listening to their customer base over a vocal social justice minority isn’t exactly a terrible business move. One of the first pieces of evidence fans were threatening to flee was when Giants owner John Mara, in an interview earlier this year, said he had never heard a louder outcry from Big Blue fans than the one against signing Colin Kaepernick.

Right now, the league is attempting to balance a delicate scale of keeping their generations of fans (growing up with loud and proud red-white-and-blue patriotism as part of the game) happy, while also attempting to not look like fodder for Black Lives Matter-type groups to call them anti-free speech and slaveholders. Back in November, the NFL promised to pledge $100 million to charities and causes over the next few years that aid the black community, in an attempt to end kneeling during the national anthem.

As the Super Bowl approaches, all eyes, and plenty of cameras, will be waiting to see if any player continues to speak his truth on the biggest of stages, and whether fans that pay hundreds and thousands of dollars for tickets will voice their disagreement.

Neil Dwyer is a graduate of the University of Miami, a political and sports broadcaster, and a freelance writer.

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