After an offseason of social and political turmoil, NFL players made it clear on the night of the season opener that they would continue to shine a light on social injustice and police brutality against African Americans.
The Houston Texans, who were in Kansas City, Missouri, on Thursday to face the Chiefs for the first game of the year, remained in their locker room during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which is known as the Black national anthem. After the protests following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in late May, the league said the song would be played before every game in week one of the season.
The Texans stayed inside to keep the focus on systemic racism and to avoid a debate over kneeling or standing during either or both songs. “It’s really not about the flag. It’s about making sure that people understand that Black lives do matter,” Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after the game.
The Chiefs lined up along their sideline while "The Star-Spangled Banner" played. One player, defensive end Alex Okafor, knelt and raised an arm. A teammate put his hand on Okafor's shoulder. Many other players linked arms. NBC Sports did not show the Texans' empty sideline.
After the anthem was played, the Texans ran on to the field to a smattering of boos from the Arrowhead Stadium crowd, which had been reduced to 22 per cent capacity because of the coronavirus. Both teams then were booed as they linked arms in the middle of the field for a moment of silence. Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes and Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who were both outspoken this summer about the need for change, were at the centre of the line, arms linked. The league has said "the moment of silence is dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country".
The protests at the NFL opener were the latest in a wave of demonstrations by professional athletes that began late last month with the widespread postponement of games as players in the NBA, the WNBA, Major League Baseball and other leagues chose to walk out in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Even though about 70 per cent of its players are Black, the NFL has wrestled for several years with how to react to player protests and calls to address systematic racism and social injustice. The league largely ignored quarterback Colin Kaepernick when he knelt during the national anthem throughout the 2016 season to protest police brutality against African Americans.
But after US president Donald Trump in September 2017 called for teams to fire players who did not stand for the anthem, the league and its owners tried to stamp down protests while also pledging tens of millions of dollars to groups fighting social injustice. The league backed off trying to ban protests during the anthem after the players union filed a grievance.
Kaepernick, once considered one of the sport’s rising stars, has not been on an NFL roster since the 2016 season, and in 2017 he accused the league of blackballing him because of his protests. The NFL agreed to a multimillion-dollar settlement of the case. In November, the league organised a tryout for Kaepernick, but the two sides could not agree on the terms of the audition.
Kaepernick held his own workout in front of about a half-dozen scouts, but he remains unsigned.
Only a handful of players protested the past couple of seasons. But the issue was reignited this summer with nationwide demonstrations after Floyd's death. In early June, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell apologised for not listening sooner to the concerns of African American players. At the same time, Trump renewed his attacks on the league.
Broadcasters, who pay the league billions of dollars for the rights to show games, have largely tiptoed around the protests. But in a sign of the new attitude, Cris Collinsworth, a former player who was one of the announcers calling Thursday's game for NBC Sports, lent his support to the protesters.
“I stand behind these players 100 per cent. 100 per cent,” he said before kickoff. “What they’re trying to do is create positive change in this country that frankly is long, long overdue.” The bulk of the NFL games will be on Sunday, and it is already clear there will be more protests. About an hour before the Chiefs and Texans kicked off, members of the Miami Dolphins took aim at the league’s efforts to address systematic racism and said they, too, would remain in the locker room during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
In a video they posted on Twitter, and which was first reported by ESPN, the players said they did not appreciate the league’s marketing slogans, which they called “fluff and empty gestures.
“We don’t need another publicity parade, so we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game,” the players said, referring to their game against the New England Patriots on Sunday. Playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” before games, they said, “is just a way to save face.
"We need changed hearts, not just a response to pressure," they added. The video ended with Dolphins coach Brian Flores, who is Afro Latino and one of just three Black head coaches in the league, repeating the message, "We'll just stay inside." The league this summer approved a plan for players to wear decals on the backs of their helmets with the names of victims of racist violence. Teams are stenciling the words "End Racism" in the end zones, and the NFL has encouraged teams to use their stadiums as polling centres on election day.
Some of the league's biggest stars are getting messages across in advertisements. Mahomes, who in July signed a 10-year contract worth as much as $500 million in July, appeared in an Adidas ad in which he said: "We're gonna be playing sports. But at the same time we're gonna be taking action, and we're gonna be making change in the world."
Mahomes has been a vocal supporter of voter registration initiatives and of fighting voter suppression. Like Goodell, some NFL team owners have said they support the players' right to protest. Last week, John Mara, co-owner of the New York Giants, said that he preferred players to stand for the national anthem but that he would back those who did not.
“I’m going to support your right to do that because I believe in the first amendment, and I believe in the right of people, especially players, to take a knee in silent protest if that’s what they want to do,” he said. - New York Times