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Escapist Dream of NFL Football

The Ravens, Baltimore and the Resilience Hype

by IAN THISTLE

“If you love the Colts, why don’t you treat me right?!”

- Baltimore Colts owner Robert Irsay

“If the Colts had to sneak out of town at night, it degrades a great tradition of a city and football.”

- Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer

Frazier’s, April, Monday night. I go to the local bar to watch the Boston Bruins take on the Washington Capitals in the NHL playoffs. I’m the only one really paying attention. Even though the Capitals play just 40 miles away, the citizens of Baltimore, generally, care little about hockey. This is likely due to various factors: few people grew up playing or even skating, as the weather rarely gets cold for long enough to freeze ponds, and the rinks are mainly in the more affluent suburbs; the Canada-ness (and Scandinavia and Russia-ness) alienates many who share little culturally with its players and fans; and (perhaps most obviously) the Capitals were a poor team for a long time.

I go to get a new beer at the bar, and overhear some of the conversation regarding the game: “I guess I’m rooting for the Caps. I don’t really care about them but I can’t stand Boston teams. Obviously the Patriots.”

The bartender is bending down to grab a beer from the cooler but manages to yell out: “fuck Tom Brady!”

“Fuck Tom Brady!” says the barfly. I remain quiet, of course.

* * *

One of the supposed qualities of Baltimore and Baltimoreans that its civic leaders love to talk about is their resiliency. And of course, whenever an elected (or hoping-to-be-elected) official can reference a local sports team to potential voters, they tend to seize the opportunity. In the case of Baltimore’s relationship with professional football, the city’s history with pro sports ties right into the admirable qualities of resiliency and never-give-up-itude that its leaders would like to believe it has.

For years, Baltimore had the Colts, who played in Memorial Stadium on the north side of the city in a residential neighborhood. Though their most famous moments in many people’s minds were losing to the underdog Joe Namath and the Jets in Super Bowl III and then being stolen from Baltimore in 1984 (more on that shortly), the Colts were actually quite successful. They won two pre-Super Bowl NFL championships and, later, Super Bowl V. Johnny Unitas, synonymous with the team, was their Hall of Fame QB. Beyond his role in modernizing the way passing was used in the game, he was an upstanding citizen and a pillar of the (white) community. As a second-generation Lithuanian-American, he represented Hard Work and Dedication and What Baltimore Can Be If We Do it Right, of course ignoring his otherworldly natural gifts and all that.

In the late 70s, a battle emerged between the Colts, and specifically their owner Robert Irsay, and the City of Baltimore over where the team would play. Memorial Stadium, the “Old Gray Lady of 33rd Street,” didn’t hold a lot of fans and the argument could be made that it was becoming decrepit. It may seem strange to those raised in the ’90s or ’00s, but cities were often hesitant about using public funds to build new homes for their sports teams, and the trump card of moving the team had yet to be used to help convince cities to pony up. A messy battle played out between the City of Baltimore and the owners of the Colts (and to a lesser extent the Orioles), and in March 1983 the state passed legislation allowing them to seize the team by eminent domain. This is a pretty amazing step when one considers that the Green Bay Packers are the only American pro sports team owned not by a rich guy or a small group of businesspeople but rather by the city they play in, even though all teams try to pass themselves off as belonging to the people of the region. So the Colts left the city literally in the middle of the night for their new home in Indianapolis, plunging fans into utter despair and leaving them wondering (if they weren’t already) if Baltimore was really a World Class City anymore[1] or if it ever will be and what would they do now and leaving their Sundays with a giant hole for the near and foreseeable future.

Once recovered from the shock, the city leaders (largely led by the now-Governor William Schaefer) went about attempting to build a new stadium to attract a new team to the city, as that had become the way to do things if you wanted a football team[2]. After being passed over by a few teams hoping to move and inexplicably (to Baltimoreans) ignored when the NFL expanded into Charlotte, NC and Jacksonville, FL, (both of whom had brand-new stadiums as well) the city finally returned to its football glory when the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and were re-named the Ravens[3]. Within two years their new shining stadium was complete, right next to the beautiful Oriole Park at Camden Yards, completing the revitalization of the Inner Harbor and restoring Baltimore to its rightful status as a world class city. The Orioles sold out their stadium for years, and though they have had a tough run of late, the Ravens now have a sellout streak of a decade plus, are consistent contenders and have taken over the title of Baltimore’s Team, and it couldn’t have happened without the Camden Yards Sports Complex to help bring an NFL team to the city.

It’s probably becoming apparent how the narrative repeated in the speeches of politicians and the fluff pieces of the press goes: “City has great team — City has team stolen — City attracts new team through the leadership of Great Men — Team becomes successful, and by extension the city does as well.” Feel free to add any adjectives that you think can describe both the team and the city in when you discuss that last point. In the Ravens’ case, “relentless[4],” “gritty,” and sure, “resilient” are some suggestions. For the more cynical among us, there are a few places where this narrative falls short. Let’s dig:

First, it’s tough to overstate just how much the citizens of Baltimore have bought into the Ravens. Even for this die-hard New England sports fan, I’ve got to hand it to them: it’s amazing. The city streets on Sundays are empty as all their usual bodies are inside somewhere watching the game. Shouts and screams echo through the neighborhood during every big play, and even some relatively unimportant ones. Ravens flags are at least equal in number to USA flags, though many fly both proudly. One of my neighbors put up a “2011 AFC North Champions” flag moments after that title was clinched. This seemed a meaningless thing to celebrate, as they hadn’t even won a playoff game at that point, until you realize that they had finally beat the Steelers in their two regular season matchups, which both teams’ players and fans basically treat like playoff games. The Red Sox are popular in New England, and there’s a sizable number of New Englanders who grew up listening to them on their porches waiting for  their fathers to return from lobstering or whatever, but before the 00s they had a tough time filling Fenway. Even after the Sox’ and the Patriots’, Celtics’ and Bruins’ championships I’m not sure sports is as ubiquitous in Boston proper as it is in Baltimore, specifically with regard to the Ravens.

So the city has bought in and the majority of folks probably believe, or try to believe, that the team means more to this city than other teams do to theirs; and symbolizes their innate qualities of resiliency and the idea that Baltimore can be great again. But as nice as it is to think that, it’s not likely to matter much in reality since sports is really just another business, and not a particularly great one for the city’s health at that.

What happened after the Colts left? The city leaders were so embarrassed and the city saddened by Irsay calling the city’s bluff and actually moving the team that they vowed never to let that happen again. And the state voters were so hurt that they agreed, and the new stadium was built with public funds.

There are a few problems with this. Most of the revenue generated from events at the stadium goes not to the city but rather to the team. There are some monies generated from taxes (or in some cases rent, if the city or state owns the stadium), but these are usually much lower than the cost of building the stadium. While teams and governments provide economic impact analyses to justify the spending, these are flawed as well: no one beyond those employed by the team moves to a city because of their sports team, its presence provides relatively few jobs (many of them low-paying and seasonal), and the money spent in and around the stadium is likely to just be spent on other entertainment options in the city if the team didn’t exist. In Baltimore’s case, the stadium funding was raised partially through the state lottery, which of course disproportionately come from poor people. While the Ravens don’t own their stadium, which makes their deal less terrible for the citizens of Maryland than comparable deals in other cities, the team’s owners do realize all profit from ticket sales, and from a possible sale of the team. While it’s unlikely, there’s not really anything preventing the team from moving, again, should they fall on hard times and another city offer them a free stadium in which to play. So we’re left with a questionable investment of public money that provides little benefit to the city beyond a few low-paying jobs and a great sense of pride in the accomplishments of their team.

What fans are left with is a sense of pride in the athletic accomplishments of a group of players, who often grew up sharing their needs, desires and struggles, but who for the most part are now pretty much like any other of the Great Men who decided how much money they should spend on the poor. In Baltimore, this dichotomy is intense, as literally steps from the stadium lie the empty storefronts of Howard Street (once a thriving commercial district), or, just 1.5 miles away, the area of West Baltimore profiled by David Simon and Ed Burns in The Corner. The players may connect with these neighborhoods on a base level, and many of them run or contribute to wonderful charities. But do their jobs provide anything but diversion to those struggling nearby? Do their heroics justify spending lottery money on the building in which they play, rather than education or other public goods?

There’s a commercial on local Baltimore TV in which Quarterback Joe Flacco talks about how much he likes living in Baltimore which is incredibly telling. He’s standing in front of the camera speaking as the film cuts to various images of the city: “When I first came to Baltimore, what first struck me was the neighborhoods and the sense of community.” Fair enough. He then goes on to list these neighborhoods: “Canton. Dundalk. Towson. Glen Burnie…it’s a big city, but it feels like a small town because everybody knows everyone else.”

Certainly this is just some ad agency’s idea of what will sell their bank and not something Joe Flacco necessarily believes, but of the four specific neighborhoods he lists, only one is within the Baltimore City limits, and only one could be remotely described as lower-class. Canton, the neighborhood in Baltimore City, has a higher average income than most others ($53,000 average compared to $39,000 for the city as a whole) and is fully outfitted with all the amenities of yuppiedom: Starbucks, Whole Foods, and a mass of bars and restaurants on O’Donnell Street. Towson and Glen Burnie, just over the Baltimore City border, are 7.5% and 22% African-American, respectively, and are essentially indistinguishable from any middle-upper class suburb.

What the ad agency realizes is that while the history and identity associated with sports in Baltimore can help to sell it, their real market lies not in the inner-city but rather in the more wealthy suburbs. Clearly this is no different than any other area: those who have money are the ones that can afford to buy the expensive tickets to the events, and the teams are going to market to them. But the difference, and here is where it gets tricky, is that in the case of the Ravens, their defense-first, tough-minded, relentless identity[5] is part of the package they use to sell themselves to fans, and this same mindset is inextricably linked to the City of Baltimore and not the suburbs. It takes toughness to play football, and it takes toughness to live in Baltimore, particularly if you’re in the Perkins Homes just blocks from the Ravens’ stadium. But it’s less clear that it takes the same toughness and resiliency to live in Towson or Canton, though their residents might like to think that.

The cynical observer might say that many Ravens fans want to seem proud about being from Baltimore, but are still worried about crime and drugs and poor schools, so they don’t want to actually live in the city. But if they spend all their time in the suburbs, apart from some time in the Ravens parking lot tailgating or moseying around the Inner Harbor, are they contributing to the city’s resilience? Have they been sold an image of street-wise toughness but are afraid of actually living that way?

This narrative showed itself in 2012 before the AFC Championship game between the Patriots and Ravens when journalist Jason Whitlock wrote an article comparing the two teams. It’s sure to prop up again this weekend, as the teams meet in a rematch.  This game will also be Ravens’ Hall of Fame linebacker and emotional leader Ray Lewis’s last or second-to-last game. Whitlock’s point was that the Ravens represent the brash “swagger” of Black America while the Patriots are the clean-cut, super-model-marrying White archetype:

“Look, we can tip-toe around it, ignore the big beautiful elephant in the room, or we can embrace the fact that Sunday’s AFC Championship contest is soaked in the white-black  racial component that has driven American sports passion at least since Jack Johnson whipped James J. Jeffries.”

On the surface, this seems reasonable. The Ravens identity is tied up in their defense, and particularly tough black players like Ray Lewis (famously acquitted of murder charges in 2000), while the Patriots are led by their superstar, chiseled-pretty-boy-with-supermodel-wife Tom Brady. Former Ravens running back Jamal Lewis did time in 2005 after taking a plea deal on charges of conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Linebacker Terrell Suggs recently was forced to turn in seven firearms, including an AK-47, after a domestic violence incident. The Patriots play in suburban Foxboro, MA, about as far from the corner as you can get, and beyond Brady, their most visible players are also white: Rob Gronkowski, the gigantic tight end from Pennsylvania, and Wes Welker, particularly notable because he plays a position (wide receiver) largely populated by African-Americans. But the Patriots’ defense is largely black – of the 16 defenders to register a tackle in last year’s AFC championship, just two are white – and it’s clear that Whitlock’s point doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. While the most hyped matchup is between Ray Lewis and Tom Brady, there are plenty of others – for example, between Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork, raised in impoverished Boynton Beach, Florida, and Ravens center Matt Birk, the Harvard-educated, outspoken social conservative Minnesotan. Both players are among the elite at their position in the league, and their upbringings and the demographics they represent couldn’t be much different. When Wilfork pushed Birk back into Flacco on a crucial 4th down late in the game, forcing Flacco to throw an incomplete pass, it represented a different white-black matchup than Whitlock had expected. Finally, if the two fanbases were to meet, they’d probably find that they had a lot in common, even though the cities their teams represent are much different.

What drives you crazy about all this isn’t some sportswriter’s ignorance. It’s that this ignorance is shared by so many who think that feeling and pride in a sports team will do something to uplift the community’s spirit. This is the essence of what convinces people that spending public money on sports stadia is a good idea: the morale boost a team can give a city, or the very real empty and sad feeling when your team moves to Indianapolis because you didn’t build them a nice stadium, or the chicken-egg question of whether the city’s economic decline and rise in crime had anything to do with the team leaving.[6]

The idea that Ray Lewis represents the West Side of Baltimore because he earns his money two miles away playing a game in a tough, scary manner and because he may have had something to do with a homicide ten years ago is false and dangerous.

Beyond the racial ramifications, it plays into the narrative that the city needs its football team, that the city should live, breathe and die with their football team, and that if they just believe in Baltimore and believe in the Ravens that they can escape. It convinces people like Governor Schaefer that public authority should be used to promote such a degree of private spending, and obfuscates any real help that government spending can give.

Ian Thistle was raised in New England, lived in Baltimore for a year (including the 2011-12 NFL season) and is currently a graduate student in urban planning at Tufts University. He can be reached at ijthistle@gmail.com

Notes.

[1]       This is of course not just tied to the existence of a football team, but also to the process of deindustrialization, suburbanization and the rise of concentrated poverty in the inner-city continuing throughout this time period.

[2]       After the Colts moved to Indianapolis, playing the “trump card” of moving the team if the city wouldn’t build what they want, dozens of other major league sports teams followed suit, lobbying their cities for new stadiums and threatening to move if their demands weren’t met. 22 of the current 31 NFL stadiums were built (or substantially renovated) since the Colts’ move, most at public expense. For much more on this history, see Neil DeMause’s fantastic book, Field of Schemes.

[3]       I guess it’s ironic or something that Baltimore partied in its streets when a shameless owner moved his team from another struggling post-industrial city, Cleveland, because he was losing money on the team and wanted income from luxury suites.

[4]       There are even stencils painted throughout Baltimore with the Ravens’ logo and the word “RELENTLESS” painted underneath.

[5]       I should probably mention that there’s likely no plan that built the team this way beyond “build a good team.” They drafted two Hall of Famers on the defensive side of the ball (Ray Lewis and Ed Reed), and had an incredible defense and mediocre offense when they won the Super Bowl in 2000. Since those Hall of Famers are still around, they still form the “identity” of the team, especially for their fans, even though the offense is arguably better than the defense this season. Had they drafted Peyton Manning or Tom Brady instead of Ray Lewis, they would have likely formed an offensive-minded team identity, as those would be their most marketable players, and I’d have to write a different essay here.

[6]       It didn’t. The city was in decline first.