The NFL Wants Us to Think It’s Changed. It Hasn’t.

Players from the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans unite on a football field under a sign that reads "We Believe in Justice for All."
Players from the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans unite in a moment of silence before the start of a game at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday in Kansas City, Missouri. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Before kicking off the 2020 NFL season on Thursday, the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans locked arms at midfield. This was billed, vaguely, as a “moment of unity,” and the Arrowhead Stadium PA announcer asked for silence to recognize the “ongoing fight for equality in our country.” Some of the crowd didn’t heed that request.

The booing was a surprise mostly because there were real, live people in attendance to express their displeasure. The Chiefs and the Jacksonville Jaguars are the only teams to allow in-person spectators in Week 1. (Capacity was capped at 16,700 on Thursday.) And, yes, many were viscerally upset by the notion of unity. But that only lasted a few seconds. Soon, they were doing the tomahawk chop and settling in to watch the Chiefs win 34–20. The NFL is back, baby!

Following the killing of George Floyd in May and the ensuing nationwide protests against police violence, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video admitting the league was “wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest.” He did not mention Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback the league has blackballed for acts of peaceful protest, by name, but he nevertheless made assurances that the NFL would reach out to players to learn “how we can improve and go forward.”

Kansas City Chiefs fans sit at halftime in the rain.
Nothing better than catching a game live in a pandemic. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Viewers saw a sampling of the league’s efforts on Thursday. Prior to a prerecorded performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” came a prerecorded performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which was accompanied by a video montage featuring a brief image of Kaepernick. (Texans players stayed in their locker room for both songs.) On the field, the end zones were painted with platitudes: “IT TAKES ALL OF US” and “END RACISM.”

Will the NFL end racism? Tune in all season to find out.

As for the aforementioned “moment of unity,” which was orchestrated by quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, NBC’s Michele Tafoya told viewers that “the league allowed the players to use this platform.” That seems to be a tacit admission that the NFL has gone from punishing social justice protests to co-opting them. For the most popular sports league in the country, that counts as progress. It also helps explain why Kaepernick appears in NFL video montages but not on an NFL roster.

Fans displeased by the league’s gestures toward social justice only had to wait until kickoff for the game to proceed in standard pro football fashion. There were some unfamiliar sights, like Chiefs head coach Andy Reid wearing a face shield to protect himself from COVID-19, but the product under the lights was pure, unadulterated NFL action, complete with a confusing review of a catch-slash-noncatch within the first set of downs. (The referees ruled that it was incomplete.) What’s more unifying than that?

As Football Night in America host Mike Tirico said during NBC’s pregame show, “There’s a lot of stuff off the field. We’ll deal with it. But there’s also football on the field.” Of course there is.

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