The first NFL Sunday of the season kicked off with players and teams acknowledging the racial strife that has engulfed the United States in recent months.
It was a far cry from past seasons, when Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL didn’t support then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protests against police brutality and racism.
Kaepernick has not played in the NFL since he sparked controversy by sitting, then kneeling, during the National Anthem before several games to protest the police shootings of Black men and other social injustices faced by the Black community. His protests received some support from fellow players but also attracted criticism, most notably from President Donald Trump.
All that was before the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody renewed attention on the Black Live Matter movement.
Two seasons ago, the NFL said players must stand or stay in the locker room. Last month, Goodell said he won’t discipline players for kneeling and he also said that he wished the league had “listened earlier” to Kaepernick.
Here’s what unfolded during Sunday’s games.
Philadelphia Eagles vs. Washington Football Team
The Eagles remained in their locker room during the pregame playing of the National Anthem before their match against the Washington Football Team on Sunday.
The two teams gathered on the field and locked arms during the playing of the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem, sung by Grammy Award-winning Alicia Keys. The NFL had the song was played or performed before every game on opening weekend. After the song, the Eagles returned to their lockers while Washington players kneeled on the sideline for a moment of silence before going inside.
As they kneeled, a monitor displayed the names of Black people killed in police shootings.
Washington quarterback Alex Smith and other team members wore T-shirts that read “end racism” on the back during their warm-ups on Sunday. The front of the shirts read “injustice against any of us is injustice against all of us.”
It was a turbulent offseason for Washington in which the team retired its oft-criticized, racially insensitive name, launched an internal investigation after 15 former female employees and two journalists who covered the team accused team staffers of sexual harassment and verbal abuse, and hired a Black president, the first in NFL history.
Miami Dolphins vs. New England Patriots
The Patriots stood for the National Anthem during their season opener against the Dolphins, but the Dolphins remained in their locker rooms for both anthems.
The Dolphins announced their decision on Thursday in a short video that criticized the NFL for what they called “fluff and empty gestures.”
“We don’t need another publicity parade,” the players said, “so we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game.”
Patriots quarterback Cam Newton made a statement with his black pregame cleats. The cleats featured the phrases, “Say their names,” “It ends now” and “No Justice, No Peace,” in white letters as well as “7 shots” in red letters, the number of times 29-year-old Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 23.
Green Bay Packers vs. Minnesota Vikings
The Green Bay Packers joined other teams who chose to stay in their locker rooms during the National Anthem before their game against the Minnesota Vikings, who stayed on the field.
“We decided as a team to remain in the locker room during the playing of the National Anthem and ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ so as to not distract from our message that we stand united for social justice and racial equality,” Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said in a statement.
“This is part of our continued call on our leaders to engage in meaningful dialogue that results in change. We feel it is important for all of us to participate in these difficult conversations with humility and be open to different perspectives.”
The Packers also wore shirts that read “end racism” on the back during their warm-ups. The front of the shirts read “injustice against any of us is injustice against all of us.”
The Vikings honored George Floyd’s family before the team’s home opener. The family, in attendance at U.S. Bank Stadium, was recognized after the pre-game performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The Gjallarhorn was not sounded in honor of Floyd and “others who no longer have a voice due to racism,” the team said on Twitter.
Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody on May 25 as an officer knelt on his neck. All four officers involved face murder charges and have been fired.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
The game between the Colts and the Jaguars, the only one on Sunday to feature spectators in the stands, saw the Jaguars stay in the locker room while the hymn “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the National Anthem were played.
“We are a unified team. And as a team, we have decided to remain in the locker room during the pregame playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star Spangled Banner” as an extension of our protest of racial injustice against the Black community,” the Jaguars said in a statement after the game. “We understand that not everyone will agree with our position and demonstration; however, we hope that all will seek to understand the reason for it. We all want the same thing: equality and justice.”
The Colts players chose to stand and lock arms on the sideline for the anthems. Indianapolis head coach Frank Reich elected to kneel during the song. The TV broadcast showed fans standing with their hands over their hearts.
“Today our football team made a statement on behalf of the Black communities in our state of Indiana; but also on behalf of all Black communities from where our players and coaches call home,” the Colts said in a statement. “Our intent is to bring attention to the issue of systemic racism and the injustice inherit therein. We also wanted to demonstrate a symbolic gesture of how we believe meaningful change happens.
The team said their “two-fold symbolic gesture of stepping forward and kneeling” was a statement of their unity, strength, and desire to stand with Black communities “in the fight for justice and equality.”
Chicago Bears vs. Detroit Lions
The Bears shared a unified response against racial injustice — but each player showed it in their own way before the team faced the Lions.
Some of the Bears kneeled during the National Anthem while others stayed in the locker room the entire time. A few players stood for the anthem and linked arms with their teammates, while others raised their fists in the air.
The Lions took a similar stance, with players choosing to respond in different ways. Several players left the field during the National Anthem while the rest stayed, some taking a knee.
Las Vegas Raiders vs. Carolina Panthers
Before their game against the Raiders, the Panthers stood on the sidelines during the National Anthem, with some players taking a knee or holding their fists in the air.
“We had Eric Reid here kneeling the last two seasons, so it’s not something new,” Panthers owner David Tepper told Bill Voth, the team’s assistant director of digital media.
“My thing was for the team to make a decision and whatever they decide is OK.”
The Raiders stood during the anthem and locked arms.
New York Jets vs. Buffalo Bills
Both the Bills and the Jets remained in their respective locker rooms during the National Anthem.
Some players wore T-shirts that read “end racism” on the back during their warm-ups on Sunday. The front of the shirts read “injustice against any of us is injustice against all of us.”
A few of the Bills players also wore helmets that read “Black Lives Matter” on the back.
Cleveland Browns vs. Baltimore Ravens
Several Ravens players took a knee during the National Anthem while some chose to sit on the bench before the team’s game against the Browns.
“We respect and support our players’ right to protest peacefully. This was a demonstration for justice and equality for all Americans. These are core values we can all support,” Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said in a statement. “This was not a protest against our country, the military or the flag. Our players remain dedicated to uplifting their communities and making America better.”
A few players with the Browns also chose to kneel during the anthem.
Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield reversed his decision to kneel for the anthem and released a statement saying that he felt kneeling “will only create more division or discussion about the gesture, rather than be a solution towards our country’s problem at hand.”
Some players wore T-shirts that read “Be the Solution” on the front and listed the names of Black people killed in police shootings.
Seattle Seahawks vs. Atlanta Falcons
The Seahawks and the Falcons were on the field for the National Anthem and a few Seahawks players kneeled.
During the opening kickoff, all 22 players from both teams knelt on the field.
“We support our players’ ability to raise their individual and collective voices and continue to create much needed change in the world,” the Falcons said in a statement. “Together we will continue to shine a light on social issues that affect our community.”
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