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. Some fans could be heard booing during the 30 seconds of silence.
The N.F.L. has wrestled 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 after nationwide protests in the wake of Floyd’s death. In early June, Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for not listening to the concerns of African-American players earlier.
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 environment, 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 released a stinging video that took aim at the league’s efforts to address systematic racism.
In the video, 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.
“We’re not puppets, so don’t advertise false budgets,” the players said later in the video.