NFL players open season silently protesting racial injustice amid empty stadiums

FILE - Mykal Walker #43 of the Atlanta Falcons reacts as the Falcons and the Seattle Seahawks kneel after the opening kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on September 13, 2020 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

NFL teams opening their seasons in empty stadiums knelt, locked arms, raised fists in protest or stayed off the field entirely for the “Star-Spangled Banner” and the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on Sunday as the once-reluctant league brought racial injustice to the forefront on the first full slate of the football season.

In Atlanta, where the Falcons and Seahawks wore armbands honoring civil rights leader John Lewis, the players did not move as the opening kickoff sailed through the end zone. Then every player on both teams dropped to a knee in the spot they were standing.

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After about 15 seconds, they rose, trotted off the field, and the game proceeded as normal.

“We’re taking this moment and making it a movement, not just as a race, a community or a team, but as a nation,” Falcons defensive end Steven Means said in a statement issued by the team. “It’s time to stand up, rise up and vote.”

Lewis, the Georgia Congressman who died in July, was named an honorary captain for the game. The Falcons also wore shirts with his quote: “The Vote is the most powerful, nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society.”

While fans were absent everywhere but Jacksonville because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Vikings hosted the family of George Floyd, who died in May after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed Black man’s neck for nearly eight minutes — a videotaped killing that sparked national protests over police brutality against Black men.

Vikings players locked arms in the end zone about a half-hour before their game against Green Bay for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song unofficially known as the Black national anthem that was played before each game on Sunday as part of the NFL’s social awakening.

About 10 of Floyd’s relatives were then shown on the stadium video board from their perch in the upper concourse near the Gjallarhorn. The symbol of Norse mythology, which the Vikings took their name from, had been sounded before every game since 2007, but it remained silent.

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“We hope in silencing the Gjallarhorn today we can continue to call attention to these silenced voices and collectively work toward a better, more just society,” the team said.

The Packers remained in their locker room for the two songs, following the lead of the Miami Dolphins, who said in a video last week that they would stay off the field for the national anthem rather than participate in “empty gestures” designed to placate the league’s fans. Among the early games, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills and New York Jets also remained in their locker rooms for the pregame ceremonies.

“We don’t need another publicity parade. So we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game,” Miami players said in the video. “This attempt to unify only creates more divide. So we will skip the song and dance and as a team we’ll stay inside.”

Other teams lined up on their sideline or along the goal line and locked arms. A handful of players -- along with Indianapolis coach Frank Reich -- knelt during the anthem, a silent echo of the 2016 protest by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick that forced the NFL to confront racial injustice in a way that Commissioner Roger Goodell and many of the league’s most powerful owners would have preferred to avoid.

Several teams made a point of stressing on Sunday that their protest was not unpatriotic -- a point Kaepernick also made, but which was often drowned out by politicians latching on to the issue, including President Donald Trump.

“To be clear -- we were not protesting the flag, the anthem, or the men and women who wear the uniform,” the Colts said in a statement. “The timing of this action is meant to highlight that the presence, power and oppression of racism remains inconsistent with the unity and freedoms of what it means to be an American.”

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Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Patriots owner Robert Kraft joined their teams as they lined up on the goal line when “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was played before their games. Quarterback Cam Newton, who was making his New England debut against Miami, appeared to be singing along.

The Dolphins remained in their locker room, as they promised in their 2-minute, 15-second video featuring nearly 20 players trading pointed rhymes about the nation’s social protest movement.

When the anthem began in Detroit, a slew of Lions walked off the field and headed toward their locker room; some remained on the field and knelt. On the other sideline, several Bears players took a knee while about 20 of their teammates waited for the anthem to end before jogging onto the field.

The NFL had been the focus of protests in American sports ever since Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to call attention to the systematic oppression of Black people in the U.S. Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC title game the next year, was unable to get a job in the league in 2017.

But the football league was in its offseason when Breonna Taylor was shot in her own apartment by Louisville police in March; when Floyd was killed in May; when Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police in August; and when protests over those and other acts of violence against Black Americans erupted across the nation.

Goodell posted a video in June conceding that the league had been late in acknowledging the problem. Since then, the league has taken visible steps like allowing racial justice messages in end zones and on helmets and T-shirts. Some team owners have pledged money toward social justice causes or offered their stadiums as polling places for the November election.