Seattle’s Jason Myers kicked the ball through the end zone to open Seattle’s season in Atlanta. Nobody else on the field moved.
Instead, the Seahawks and Falcons fell to one knee where they had stood.
After years of advocating with their league to act against systemic racism, NFL players were willing to wait another 10 seconds to make their point.
Teams opening their seasons in empty stadiums on Sunday knelt, closed their arms, raised fists in protest, or stayed off the pitch completely for the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ and the black anthem ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ like the once reluctant competition brought racial injustice to the fore in the NFL’s first full series of games.
In Atlanta, the teams wore bracelets in honor of civil rights leader John Lewis and performed the most striking gestures of the day: They watched the first kickoff sail through the end zone for a touchback, dropped to one knee and stayed there about 10 seconds before the run down the field to resume play.
“We’re taking this moment and making it a movement, not just as a race, a community or a team, but as a nation,” Steven Means said in a statement from the team. “It’s time to get up, get up and vote.”
Lewis, the Georgia congressman who died in July, was named honorary captain for the match. 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 except Jacksonville due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Minnesota Vikings hosted George Floyd’s family, who died in May in a videotaped murder that sparked national protests over police brutality against black men.
Viking players closed their arms in the end zone about half an hour before their match against Green Bay for “ Lift Every Voice and Sing, ” the song unofficially known as the Black National Anthem played before every match in Week 1 as part of the Het social awakening of the NFL.
A dozen of Floyd’s family members were then shown on the stadium’s video board from their seat in the top hall near the Gjallarhorn. The symbol of Norse mythology, from which the Vikings took their name, has sounded before every match since 2007.
On Sunday it remained quiet.
“We hope that by silencing the Gjallarhorn today, we can continue to draw attention to these muffled voices and work together for a better, fairer society,” said the team.
The Packers stayed in their dressing room for the two songs, echoing the Miami Dolphins, who said in a video last week that they would stay off the field for the national anthem rather than engage in “ empty gestures. ” The Jacksonville Jaguars, Buffalo Bills, and New York Jets also stayed in their locker rooms for the pregame ceremonies.
“We don’t need another publicity parade. So we’ll just stay in until it’s time to play the game,” Miami players said in the video. “This attempt to unite only creates more divisions. and dance about and as a team we stay indoors. “
Other teams stood on their sidelines or along the goal line and closed their arms. A few dozen players – who were every bit as good as Indianapolis coach Frank Reich – knelt during the National Anthem, a silent echo of the 2016 protest by 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who forced the NFL to face racial injustice in a way that Commissioner Roger Goodell and many of the league’s most powerful owners would have preferred to avoid this.
Several teams stressed on Sunday that their protest was not unpatriotic – a point Kaepernick also made, but was often drowned out by those – including President Donald Trump – who clung to the issue.
“To be clear – we were not protesting the flag, the national anthem or the men and women wearing the uniform,” the Colts said in a statement. “The timing of this action is intended to emphasize that the presence, power and repression of racism continues to conflict with the unity and freedoms of what it means to be an American.”
Falcon owner Arthur Blank and Patriots owner Robert Kraft joined their teams standing in line on the goal line when “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was played for their games. Quarterback Cam Newton, who made his New England debut against Miami, appeared to be singing along.
The dolphins stayed in their dressing room, as they promised in their 2 minute 15 second video in which nearly 20 players exchanged sharp rhymes about the country’s social protest movement.
When the Detroit anthem started, a bunch of lions walked off the field and into their locker room; some stayed in the field and knelt. On the other sidelines, several Bears players took a knee while about 20 of their teammates waited for the national anthem to finish before running onto the field.
The NFL has been at the center of the social justice protests in American sports since Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to draw attention to the systematic oppression of black people in the US. Kaepernick, who led San Francisco to the Super Bowl in 2012 and the NFC title game the following year, couldn’t get a job in the league in 2017 – or ever since.
But the football league was in the off-season when Breonna Taylor was gunned down in her own apartment by Louisville police in March; when a white police officer in Minneapolis pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes in May and killed him; when Jacob Blake was shot and paralyzed by Kenosha, Wisconsin police in August; and then protests over those and other acts of violence against black Americans broke out across the country.
Goodell posted a video in June admitting that the league had recognized the problem too late. Since then, the competition has taken largely symbolic steps, such as allowing racial justice messages in end zones and on helmets and T-shirts.
Some team owners have pledged money for social justice causes or offered their stadiums as a polling place for the November election.
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; and Mike Marot in Indianapolis contributed.