NFL Braces For Sunday Social Activism As Teams Are Largely Silent On Plans

If you tuned in late to the Kansas City Chiefs-Houston Texans NFL season opener on Thursday night, you missed the most important action of the game.

The final score and the night’s big plays took a backseat today to the social activism on display, which included fans booing a pre-game show of unity by the two teams, who linked arms at mid-field before the kickoff. As the players lined up, a scoreboard message flashed the phrases We Support Equality, We Must End Racism. We Believe in Justice for All, We Must End Police Brutality, We Choose Unconditional Love, We Believe Black Lives Matter, It Takes All of Us.

There was also a taped performance of the so-called Black national anthem “Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing” by Alicia Keys, and a video of singers Chloe X Halle wearing t-shirts commemorating George Floyd and Breonna Taylor during their rendition of the national anthem.

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The demonstrations were not limited to the players. NBC announcer Cris Collinsworth made a statement of support after the mid-field show of unity demonstration. It was one of several made by the game’s analysts in the pre- and halftime reports, as the commentary seemed equally divided between game analysis and a social activism struggle session.

Today, the league and fans assessed the fallout from those activities, and looked ahead to Sunday’s larger slate of games. For the most part, teams are playing it close to the vest as to how they plan to stage their own social activism on Sunday.

Only the Miami Dolphins have outlined a firm plan for Sunday’s games, saying they will remain in the locker room during the national anthem. “This attempt to unify only creates more divide,” the Dolphins said in their message. “We need changed hearts, not just a response to pressure. Enough, no more fluff and empty gestures. We need owners with influence and pockets bigger than ours to call up officials and flex political power.”

Other teams are either not saying or will decide on Saturday how they will demonstrate. Most indications are that there will be some form of activism on display, as players have held team meetings to discuss plans.

Fans watching on television have already voted with their feet, dropping ratings on the opening night marquee match, a surprising development given that the game featured the Super Bowl champions against a leading contender.

The New York Giants have not decided how they will demonstrate for their Monday Night Football match against the Pittsburgh Steelers, although team leaders Sterling Shepard and running back Saquon Barkley say they have options being discussed.

The New York Jets Adam Gase said his team will decided on Saturday morning what they will do. “We’ve had a few discussions on it, I think we’re close to finalizing what we want to do,” Gase said on Friday during his virtual press conference. “We have a discussion [Saturday] morning with our captains and leadership council. What we talked about was making sure before we got on that plane, we knew how we were going about everything.”

Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford said that players had been given “the green light” to demonstrate, something forbidden in the past  “Just trying to find something that’s going to make a boom,” Crawford told reporters.

“The discussions are continuing every day,” said Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. “We still haven’t gotten a final decision about what we want to do and how we want to go about it.”

That’s heartening news to some. But the NFL and its broadcasters have to be worried about the 42 percent surveyed who did not agree with that social activism by players. If that translates to extremely lower television ratings in a season expected to be played with minimal fan presence, that’s a formula for disaster.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has stated that the league will support players who protest racial injustice in the US during the upcoming season.

“We’re going to stand behind our players,” Goodell said on CNBC’s “Squawk Alley.” “We respect our players and they have done a great job of bringing attention to these issues. Our focus now is, ‘How do we support them in making the changes?’”

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