Tonight’s NFL 2020 season-opening game between the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans is the culmination of four years of painstakingly hard work. It’s been four years since Colin Kaepernick kneeled on the sidelines during the national anthem. His 2016 stance created a firestorm of controversy that divided locker rooms and households, and ultimately, cost him his job. Many, including the NFL and its owners, viewed the San Francisco 49ers quarterback’s move as disrespectful of the flag and the military, despite his insistence it was a protest against social injustice and police brutality.
Fast forward to May 25, 2020. A Minnesota police officer kneeled on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes until he died. Floyd’s death was the tipping point for a nation. Protests and demonstrations followed. And a movement was born. That social justice movement swept its way into sports, including the NFL, which has since changed its view of Kaepernick and his initial protest. Tonight, it all came full circle, because, for the first time, the NFL was an active participant in the protest. And it was a moving moment not soon to be forgotten.
Colin Kaepernick first kneels in protest during national anthem
In late August 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick initially protested social injustice and police brutality by remaining seated on the bench away from his teammates during the national anthem. A week later, after meeting with former NFL player and Green Beret Nate Boyer, Kaepernick opted to take a knee next to his teammates on the sidelines.
That single decision to kneel changed Kaepernick’s career and, more significantly, his life. After his season-long protest, he was blackballed by NFL owners and never given another opportunity to return to the game, despite having once guided the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Out of the game, Kaepernick still regularly makes headlines as his name has been regularly invoked since 2016 whenever police kill another Black person. Whether it’s athletes referring to him on social media or demonstrators wearing his jersey in protests across American cities, Kaepernick’s profile has transitioned from football player to activist.
Even Brett Favre said Kaepernick will be remembered as a hero for his willingness to give up the game in pursuit of a higher calling.
NFL players release video and Roger Goodell responds
Just days after George Floyd’s death and as protests and demonstrations blossomed in cities across the nation, numerous NFL players, including Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, coordinated a video and posted it on their different social media platforms. The video called on the league to “condemn racism and systemic oppression of black people … admit wrong in silencing our players from peacefully protesting … and believe black lives matter.”
The next day, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded with his own video echoing the words requested in the players’ video.
“We, the NFL, condemn racism and the systematic oppression of Black People. We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
Goodell’s initial response lacked an apology directly to Colin Kaepernick. That changed in August when the commissioner expressed remorse and apologized to the former 49ers quarterback.
“The first thing I’d say is I wish we had listened earlier, Kaep, to what you were kneeling about and what you were trying to bring attention to,” Goodell acknowledged.
NFL promoting social justice awareness; fans boo ‘moment of unity’
Since Roger Goodell’s acknowledgment in June that the NFL erred in not allowing its players to peacefully protest, there has been rampant speculation as to what fans might expect in the 2020 season. According to numerous reports, the NFL will be enacting numerous social justice initiatives and fans got a first chance to see them in action on Thursday night.
The end zones are inscribed with two slogans: “It Takes All Of Us” on one end line and “End Racism” on the other. Similar to the NBA, players can now wear visuals on their helmets that feature a victim’s name (such as Breonna Taylor and George Floyd) or one of four preferred phrases the NFL has approved: “Stop Hate”; “It Takes All Of Us”; “End Racism”; or “Black Lives Matter.'”
For week 1, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or the Black national anthem, will be played before the national anthem. During the season opener, the Houston Texans stayed in their locker for both anthems in order to avoid any “misinterpretation of celebrating one song and throwing shade on the other.”
The Chiefs stood locked arm-in-arm for the Black anthem, returned to the locker room, and then back to the sidelines for the national anthem where there was a mix of players standing arm-in-arm, others standing alone hand over heart, and Alex Okafor, the lone player choosing to kneel.
After the anthems finished and the Texans returned to the field, both teams led by Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson met at midfield and locked arms in a moment of unity. Some of the 17,000 in attendance showered the players with a chorus of boos.
The pregame ceremonies offered a very different look for the NFL. It wasn’t without some controversy. But to the league and commissioner Roger Goodell’s credit, they presumably have learned from their past miscalculations and are genuinely trying to move the ball forward in the fight against social injustice. And for a league with so much popularity and influence in communities across the nation, that’s a big step in the right direction.