What promises to be the most socially conscious season in National Football League history kicked off Thursday night in Missouri, with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs matching up against the Houston Texans at Arrowhead Stadium.
A league that once discouraged its players from kneeling during the national anthem has now fully embraced social activism on the field. Even formerly adamant owners like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys have bowed to the tenor of the times, backing the players’ right to express their beliefs.
NBC’s pre-game show was heavy on promoting the sea change, with on-field player matchup talk balanced with an equal dose of talk about the social meaning of it all. The NFL is obviously nervous about its situation, as some players have openly talked about skipping a game to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake and the death of George Floyd.
The Chiefs allowed just 17,000 fans to watch tonight’s game live, chosen from a pool of season ticket holders. Arrowhead Stadium is normally one of the NFL’s loudest fields when it holds more than 76,000 fans. As of today, 25 of the NFL’s 32 teams have announced they will not have fans in attendance for at least their first game. Two teams have yet to share their plans, while five others have committed to a limited capacity.
The lucky few who attended the Kansas City-Houston game were banned from wearing anything related to Native Americans. The Chiefs earlier said it would stop fans from wearing headdresses, American Indian-themed face paint, and other cultural misappropriations at future games. Fans were encouraged to wear face masks except when eating or drinking.
Fans were treated to the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” before the traditional national anthem, the “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The league plans to have the so-called “Black National Anthem” performed live or played via a recording before every Week 1 NFL game.
In a twist, the Houston Texans left the field before a video played of Alicia Keys singing “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing.” A statement from the Texans said the players decided they didn’t want to create any misinterpretation of shaming one song over the other, although the NBC pre-game indicated the team was divided on how to react. The Chiefs stayed on the field for the song.
The Chiefs returned to the field for the release of the championship banner and “Star-Spangled Banner.” Chiefs linebacker Alex Okafor kneeled for the anthem, raising a fist. The Texans remained in the locker room.
After the anthem, players from both teams met at midfield for what was described as “a moment of unity.” There was then a moment of silence “dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality,” according to the Chiefs PA announcer. Members of both teams linked arms in a long line and shook hands. Social activism slogans appeared on the scoreboard during the moment of silence.
In another touch this season, players will be allowed to wear the name of a victim of police violence or systemic racism, or a slogan on their back helmet bumper. The approved available slogans include “Black Lives Matter,” “Stop Hate,” “It Takes All Of Us” or “End Racism.”
The last two slogans were stenciled behind the end zone at Arrowhead Stadium, similar to the league’s “Crucial Catch” and “Salute to Service” campaigns.