BALTIMORE — Music blared from the purple bus, and Baltimore Ravens fan Racquel Bailey stood with drink in hand amid her usual tailgate buddies while making a bold fashion statement: a black, rhinestone-decorated jersey with the white No. 27.
A Ray Rice jersey.
"There's two sides to every story," said the 23-year-old waitress from Baltimore. "I saw the video. That's their personal business, and it shouldn't have affected his career. I don't agree with domestic violence, but she's still with him, so obviously it wasn't that big of a deal. Everyone should just drop it."
Ravens fans male and female, young and old, arrived for Thursday night's game against the Pittsburgh Steelers debating the events that have affected their team over the last few days. Their once beloved running back has been kicked off the team and banned by the NFL after a video surfaced that showed him punching his then-fiancee — and now wife — inside an Atlantic City hotel elevator.
All condemned Rice's actions, but there was little consensus as to what his punishment should be. The NFL did the right thing by suspending him, some said, but the Ravens shouldn't have terminated his contract as well. Or maybe the suspension should have remained at two games, where it stood before the punch video became public.
Meanwhile, those who wore Rice jerseys were getting heckles and high-fives.
"You support a wife-beater!" one female fan yelled at male fan wearing a No. 27 about 90 minutes before kickoff.
Outside of at least one entrance, a memo explained the "Ray Rice Jersey Exchange" policy, aimed at "particularly families, women and children" who wish to exchange a Rice jersey for that of another Ravens player. The Ravens are no longer selling Rice jerseys, but at least one independent vendor had some Rice action figurines on sale next to his collection of vintage Baltimore Colts wares.
The somber nature of the Rice saga jarred with the usual merriment surrounding a night game. The NFL Network set outside the stadium included panelists discussing serious issues on the air, while raucous fans hoping for a win over the Steelers cheered in the background.
Paul Kilduff, 65, put two pieces of duct tape over the letters "Ray R" on the back of his faded shirt so that it read "Be Nice" instead of "Ray Rice." But the tape kept falling off, so he took off the jersey, then put it back on without the tape while uttering, "Ah, I might as well."
"Everybody deserves a second chance," he said, a refrain heard often in the parking lot.
This, after all, is the franchise of Ray Lewis, who was charged in a murder case in 2000 but now has a statue outside the stadium. His No. 52 remains arguably the most visible jersey among tailgaters.
But there were plenty of No. 27s, and many of them said they were deliberately making a statement.
"I took the bus here, so people were, like, 'Good, I'm glad to see to someone out here showing support,'" said Gage Friend, 18, as he learned against the barrier by the players' entrance. "But I've also seen a lot of people giving me dirty looks and people saying stuff to me like, 'I can't believe you'd wear that. Don't you know what he did?'
"Yeah, I'm pretty aware of what he did. And, yes, it was awful and it was definitely a mistake on his part, but he deserves a second chance. ... People have done so much worse in this league."
Others supported the team's decision to get rid of Rice, including one who called out Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti for not acting sooner.
"He's a coward," said Stephanie Wright, 43, from Shrewsbury, Pa. "He was just scared of public opinion so that's why he just terminated (Rice). ... You should be held accountable. If he was a policeman or a firefighter, he would have lost his job immediately."
Associated Press writer Juliet Linderman, AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi, AP Sports Writer Jon Krawczynski and AP freelance writer Pete Kerzel contributed to this report.
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