After an off-season of social and political turmoil, N.F.L. players made it clear on the night of the season opener that they will continue to shine a light on social injustice and police brutality against African Americans.
The Houston Texans, who were in Kansas City, Mo., 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 1 of the season.
The Texans stayed inside to avoid having to decide whether to kneel or stand during either or both songs. 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 crowd, which had been reduced to 22 percent 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 on the need for change, were at the center of the line, arms linked.
Even though about 70 percent of its players are Black, the N.F.L. 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 President Trump in September 2017 called on teams to fire players who did not stand for the anthem, the league and its owners tried to tamp 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.
Only a handful of players protested the past couple of seasons. But the issue was reignited this summer with nationwide protests after Floyd’s death. In early June, Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for not listening to the concerns of African-American players earlier. At the same time, President 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 percent. 100 percent,” 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 N.F.L. 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 empty 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, one of just three African-American 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 N.F.L. has encouraged teams to use their stadiums as polling centers 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 fighting voter suppression.
Like Goodell, some N.F.L. team owners have said they support the players’ right to protest. Last week, John Mara, co-owner of the Giants, said he preferred that players 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.