“The days of ‘sports and social issues aren’t going to mix,’ that’s the old world,” said Michael Rubin, a social justice activist and the executive chairman of Fanatics, which operates merchandise websites for the N.F.L. and other major leagues. “These issues are top of mind, and the players are going to use their platforms. I don’t see any chance of this reversing course.”
Still, as the self-proclaimed “America’s game,” the N.F.L. remains a lightning rod for controversy in everything it does. To avoid being swept into the debate inflamed by President Trump over whether it is unpatriotic to protest during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Buffalo Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jets and the Miami Dolphins, as well as the Houston Texans, who played Thursday, stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem. The Arizona Cardinals did the same, while their hosts, the 49ers, were on the field.
“We don’t need another publicity parade, so we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game,” the Dolphins’ players said in a video released Thursday.
Other players reversed themselves. Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns quarterback, said he would not kneel during the national anthem because “I have been showed that a gesture such as kneeling will only create more division or discussion about the gesture, rather than be a solution towards our country’s problems at hand,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was criticized in June by other players, including some of his teammates, for saying that he would not kneel because he did not want to disrespect the military or the flag, stood during the national anthem. But during warm-ups, he wore a shirt that said, “Say Her Name,” a reference to the outcry over the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.
The events on Sunday were an echo of leaguewide protests that occurred three years ago after Mr. Trump called on owners to fire any players who did not stand for the national anthem. Those demonstrations, by hundreds of players across the league, were hastily planned and largely petered out after a few weeks. The league did not penalize the players, but the owners, several of whom donated lavishly to the president’s inauguration that year, later tried to tamp down player protests before dropping the effort when the players’ union filed a grievance.
This year is different. Commissioner Roger Goodell in June apologized for not listening earlier to the concerns of African-American players, who make up about 70 percent of the league. Coaches across the league have set aside time for their players to discuss their concerns about current events. White players who were largely silent have joined player social justice committees.