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Scandals? What scandals? Here's why fans are still watching the NFL

Football fans watch the Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Jets at the Hamilton Sports Bar and Grill in Baltimore on Sept. 18.
Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
Football fans watch the Baltimore Ravens vs. New York Jets at the Hamilton Sports Bar and Grill in Baltimore on Sept. 18.

Updated September 25, 2022 at 9:53 AM ET

For the last few months, I've been driving past a new sports bar in northeast Baltimore, but hadn't had the chance to stop in. It's in a space that, until somewhat recently, was home to a Mexican restaurant.

Dante Harrison is the owner of the Hamilton Sports Bar and Grille.
/ Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
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Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
Dante Harrison is the owner of the Hamilton Sports Bar and Grille.

But Dante Harrison, one of the co-owners of the Hamilton Sports Bar and Grill, had a different vision. He described it as "an adult community center, slash restaurant, slash hangout space," where people could have a good meal and some drinks, watch a game or hear some live music.

But with the start of a new football season – and an assignment that involved talking to football fans – I finally decided to stop by on a Sunday to check it out for a game. The bar is dimly lit, with hand-painted murals of Maryland athletes and an impressive wooden bar in the center of the room.

When I first walked in, I met Dwight Claiborne as he was putting stacks of poker chips on a few long tables in the center of the restaurant for a bar poker league.

Now 60, Claiborne told me he's been a football fan since he was seven, long before the Ravens became Baltimore's team.

"As a child, I used to play street ball. At that time, Baltimore had the Colts, so I started out liking the Colts, but they moved the team," he said. "I've been fascinated with football since."

Dwight Claiborne runs a Poker Tournament out of The Hamilton Sports Bar. He's been a football fan since he was seven.
/ Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
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Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
Dwight Claiborne runs a Poker Tournament out of The Hamilton Sports Bar. He's been a football fan since he was seven.

I didn't start watching football when I was as young as Claiborne, and my passing and kicking skills certainly leave something to be desired. But I love the game, and always have. I grew up in Kansas City, and have spent my Sundays rooting for the Chiefs since becoming a big football fan in college.

When the team won its first Super Bowl in 50 years, I watched in a crowded bar, with tears streaming down my face, before flying to cover the Iowa caucuses the next morning. And now that I'm married to a Ravens fan and have lived in Baltimore for the better part of a decade, I can rattle off my thoughts about QB Lamar Jackson without hesitation.

There are few things I love more than a football Sunday. The NFL though, doesn't always make that easy.

Fans feel conflicted over the lack of change within the league

People gather around the bar while watching football.
/ Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
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Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
People gather around the bar while watching football.

The NFL has pinballed from crisis to crisis over the years – cases of domestic violence and sexual assault, concussions and CTE, not to mention accusations of racism and issues with team ownership.

But those issues have left me conflicted, and I'm definitely not alone.

Dwight Claiborne has been a fan long enough to see the NFL change – in some ways for the better, like the league's gender diversity efforts. But he also says the league has been too slow to evolve in others.

"I think they need to drop some of the politics pertaining to when Colin Kaepernick took the knee. I think that portion probably needs to be reexamined," he said.

He's referring to the former quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, who took a knee during the national anthem at games in protest of racial injustice and police brutality. It sparked a debate over athletes' right to protest. Kaepernick led his team to the Super Bowl in 2013, but hasn't played in the NFL since 2017.

I asked Randy Bruton, a patron at Hamilton Sports Bar and Grill, about this, and how he reconciled his support for a league that doesn't do right by all of its players.

Philadelphia Eagles fan Randy Bruton says he has conflicted feelings about the NFL since the league doesn't always do right by all of its players.
/ Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
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Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
Philadelphia Eagles fan Randy Bruton says he has conflicted feelings about the NFL since the league doesn't always do right by all of its players.

"It's kind of tough, right? Because being an African American male, and knowing how the NFL does African American men," he said.

He told me that both players and NFL fans like the two of us – have a choice.

"African American men who are in the league normally come from deprived homes, trying to better their families. So this is the way they do it. But y'know it comes at a cost. So, it's just a choice. We have a choice."

One thing that's been hard for me to stomach over the years is how the NFL responds – or doesn't respond – to accusations of violence against women.

A recent peer-reviewed study took a look at whether arrests for accusations of violence against women hurt NFL players' careers. The answer? The consequences are "negligible," the study found, for athletes as a group.

Fond memories keep fans coming back for more

Michelle Webster (left), who grew up in Washington State, watches the Seattle Seahawks game against the Denver Broncos at Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12.
/ Alyssa Schukar for NPR
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Alyssa Schukar for NPR
Michelle Webster (left), who grew up in Washington State, watches the Seattle Seahawks game against the Denver Broncos at Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12.

I met Michelle Webster at Red Bear Brewing Company in Washington, D.C., during the first Monday Night Football game of the season. The issue of violence against women in the NFL hasn't set well with her, either.

"As a feminist, it's really hard for me to watch these men get slaps on the wrist for assault and other offenses against women," she told me.

Webster is a Seahawks fan and grew up watching with her father, who has since died. But she still watches every game, and texts with her family back in Washington state about the team.

"It's really disappointing, but at the same time, I've tried to give up the league, and I've tried not to watch, and I don't know...," she said. "I miss my team, and I miss that aspect of my life. I struggle with it a lot."

One of the things that keeps Webster a fan, despite her discomfort, is those family connections.

A Seattle Seahawks flag hangs next to an American flag at Red Bear Brewing.
/ Alyssa Schukar for NPR
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Alyssa Schukar for NPR
A Seattle Seahawks flag hangs next to an American flag at Red Bear Brewing.

"We have a family pick'em league that has been around for over 50 years ... and our entire family's in it. And we all compete against each other in that, and we all talk about football constantly," she said. "We don't align politically, but we all align for the Seahawks."

That's also the case for Katie Nisbet, who was watching the Seahawks at a table not far from Michelle Webster's spot at the bar.

She inherited fandom from the women in her family, including her 93-year old grandmother, who wears the Seahawks' navy and green every Sunday.

Katie Nisbet, who is from the Seattle area originally, waits for the start of the Seattle Seahawks' game against the Denver Broncos at Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12.
/ Alyssa Schukar for NPR
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Alyssa Schukar for NPR
Katie Nisbet, who is from the Seattle area originally, waits for the start of the Seattle Seahawks' game against the Denver Broncos at Red Bear Brewing in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 12.

"She and my mom have kind of taught me the sport of football. Being a fan, coming from a family with a big matriarch, it's been really important to watch football and talk to them about it," she said. "I talk to her almost every Sunday after the game."

When I asked Nisbet how she thinks about the state of the NFL at the start of the new season, she said she's proud of her team's ownership and the values they exhibit.

"I think that's really important to have owners that instill those values to their fans and show that they'll show up for them," she said. "It makes me feel like I want to be a better fan."

If you look at television viewership numbers, the NFL's keep rolling in strong as fans keep choosing football. In the first week of September, the top two shows in the Nielsen ratings were NFL games. Numbers three and four were NFL pregame shows.

Randy Bruton plays in the poker tournament at the Hamilton Sports Bar.
/ Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
/
Justin T. Gellerson for NPR
Randy Bruton plays in the poker tournament at the Hamilton Sports Bar.

And when you talk to people like Dante Harrison, that's not surprising.

I asked the sports-bar owner if there was anything that would make him turn off the game for good. He didn't miss a beat when he answered.

"I would never, ever, ever," he told me. "Nothing can change that."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Sarah Handel