Four years after Colin Kaepernick first took a knee in protest of police brutality, and in the era of civil unrest following the death of George Floyd and the coronavirus pandemic, the NFL is changing the way it takes on issues of social justice.
Many of the changes were on display on Thursday night, with the 101st season getting underway as the Houston Texans took the field against the Kansas City Chiefs, the players locking arms in a show of solidarity prior to kickoff (despite some fans audibly booing).
"There are so many great young stars who are also incredibly strong and impactful members of the community off the field, so I think that's a great combination as we head into our future," said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's executive vice president of club business and league events.
The NFL also aired a 90-second video launching its "It Takes All of Us" campaign. The video features the 2017 Hall of Fame induction speech by former player LaDainian Tomlinson who stated, "Football is a microcosm of America — all races, religions, and creeds living, playing, side-by-side."
"That is the broader message. Whether it is coming together to fight the pandemic or to fight social injustice, it does take all of us, and it takes individual action," O'Reilly said.
The NFL executive pointed out that, including stars like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson who linked up during the opening night's games, 1,400 players throughout the league will be wearing anti-racism messaging or the names of the victims of systemic racism on the backs of their helmets.
Houston Texans staff carry helmets to the field during pre-game activities before their game against the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football game, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
"It's not just those symbols if you will, but it's telling those stories. And you'll see those stories told, and you'll see action coming to life," he said, also highlighting the performance by Alicia Keys of "Lift Every Voice and Sing", referred to as the Black national anthem, following The Star-Spangled Banner.
However, the Houston Texans went back to their locker room during both songs. Miami Dolphins players released a video Thursday also announcing their plans to remain in the locker room during the anthems and questioning the NFL's sincerity and commitment to fighting for social justice issues.
O'Reilly responded that the league was indeed acting, not just making empty gestures, citing its community and voter outreach as part of its action plans.
Thursday night's season opener at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City also provided an example of how player and fan safety will be addressed during the coronavirus pandemic.
"You're sitting in a separate pod so your friends, your family of four, are separated by rows, everybody with masks on, separate, kind of tiered entrances where you're coming in at different times," he said.
"Obviously the players are currently tested every day, contact tracing, and we've had really good success and are cautiously optimistic about continuing that success all season long."