AP Photo/Aaron Doster
The Los Angeles Chargers stand arm-in-arm as "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is played before an NFL football game against the Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Cincinnati.

Four years after Kaepernick, NFL now embraces racial protests

NFL teams opened their seasons on Sunday by kneeling, locking arms, and raising fists in protest as the once-reluctant league brought racial injustice to the forefront.

Jason Myers kicked the ball through the end zone to open Seattle's season at Atlanta. No one else on the field moved.

Instead, the Seahawks and Falcons dropped to one knee where they had stood.

After years of pleading with their league to act against systemic racism, NFL players were prepared to wait another 10 seconds to make their point.

Teams opening their seasons in empty stadiums on Sunday 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” as the once-reluctant league brought racial injustice to the forefront on the NFL's first full slate of games.

In Atlanta, the teams wore armbands honoring the late civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis and staged the most striking of the day's gestures: They watched the opening kickoff sail through the end zone for a touchback, took a knee, and remained there for about 10 seconds before trotting off the field to resume the game.

“It’s a start," Falcons running back Todd Gurley said after the game. "Are we going to keep doing this? ... You don’t want to make it a one-time thing – just like having a good game, and then the rest of the season you do nothing.”

Mr. 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.”

And that's just what the Falcons and Seahawks did before the game.

“Teams got together beforehand, communicated, and everybody voted and said we’re going to come together as a unit,” Falcons receiver Julio Jones said. “Collectively, we can move mountains.”

While fans were absent everywhere except Jacksonville because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Vikings hosted the family of George Floyd, who died in May in a videotaped killing that sparked national protests over police brutality against Black people.

Vikings players locked arms in the end zone about a half-hour before their game against Green Bay for “Lift Every Voice,” which was played before each game in Week 1 along with the national anthem as part of the NFL’s social awakening. At least six Vikings knelt during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” something coach Mike Zimmer had opposed previously.

“A couple years back, kneeling was the worst thing you could do. And now if you stand, people have something to say about that," Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr said. "There’s always going to be people trying to divide from inside. But, however you feel about it, you should express it your way.”

About 10 of Mr. 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.

On Sunday, it remained silent.

“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.”

“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.”

The Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, New York Jets and Arizona Cardinals also remained in their locker rooms for both songs. Before Thursday night’s season opener in Kansas City, the teams were booed when they locked arms in a pregame sign of unity; there was no sign of vitriol in Jacksonville, where the Jaguars distributed 14,000 tickets for the only NFL game with fans in attendance on Sunday.

Other teams lined up on their sideline or along the goal line and locked arms. A few dozen players 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.

Colts coach Frank Reich also dropped to one knee.

“Frank is the leader of this team ... and he’s the one who says ‘You know it starts with me,'" Indianapolis linebacker Darius Leonard said. “That definitely means a lot and that’s why we stand behind Coach Frank, he stands behind us, and we all stand together.”

The Colts were among the teams stressing that their protest was not unpatriotic, a point Mr. Kaepernick also made, but which has often been drowned out by those – including President Donald Trump – latching onto the issue.

“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.”

Falcons owner Arthur Blank and Patriots owner Robert Kraft were among those lining up with their teams when the Black anthem was played before their game. Quarterback Cam Newton, who made 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.

“We spoke on this as a team. All of us together. We decided that's what we wanted to do,” Miami safety Bobby McCain said afterward. “It’s inspiration. We have a platform and we ... will keep using it.”

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 at the center of social justice protests in American sports ever since Mr. Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to call attention to the systematic oppression of Black people in the U.S. Mr. 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 – or since.

But the football league was in its offseason when Breonna Taylor was shot in her own apartment by Louisville police in March; when a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on Mr. Floyd's neck for nearly eight minutes in May, killing him; 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.

Mr. Goodell posted a video in June conceding that the league had been late in acknowledging the problem. Since then, the league has taken largely symbolic 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.

“For me, it’s about change," Chicago Bears tight end Jimmy Graham said. "Obviously, it’s a hot topic. And it needs to stay a hot topic until some legislation’s passed to hold people accountable and for total reform. That’s all we’re asking. I don’t think anything’s gonna stop until it happens.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press. AP Sports Writers Steve Reed in Charlotte, North Carolina; Larry Lage in Detroit; Mark Long in Jacksonville, Florida; Kyle Hightower in Foxborough, Massachusetts; Dave Campbell in Minneapolis; Paul Newberry in Atlanta; Josh Dubow Santa Clara, California; Brett Martel in New Orleans; Joe Kay in Cincinnati; Dave Ginsburg in Baltimore; John Wawrow in Buffalo, New York; Mike Marot in Indianapolis; and Andrew Seligman in Chicago contributed.

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