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In the NFL, expect protesting and booing to continue: ‘It shows exactly where we’re at’

Week 1 showed some fans will stay hot as players demonstrate before games

After 14 years in the NFL and 39 being Black in America, Anquan Boldin wasn’t surprised that fans booed during a pregame display of racial unity before the league’s season opener at Arrowhead Stadium on Thursday. Truth is, it would have been a shocker if most of the crowd had applauded as the Kansas City Chiefs and Houston Texans locked arms, the retired Pro Bowl wide receiver, Super Bowl winner and co-founder of the Players Coalition lamented.

“The booing … it shows exactly where we’re at,” Boldin told The Undefeated on the phone Monday. “If everybody was on the same page, and wanted everybody to be treated equal, then we would all be in this fight together. But we’re not. We’re not close to all being in this fight together. And for anybody who would have expected anything different [at the opener], they aren’t dealing with the reality of the country that we live in.”

As the NFL begins anew amid a pandemic and the ongoing national reckoning on systemic racism and police brutality ignited by the killing of George Floyd while in police custody back in May, as well as several other recent fatal encounters between Black people and law enforcement, the league is still struggling to navigate the recent protest movement in sports. Then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who first sat and then kneeled more than four years ago to shine a spotlight on historically oppressed Black and brown communities, initiated the protests that have evolved. During Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season, there were a variety of demonstrations by players and teams.

Among the league’s top decision-makers, the official position toward the movement has changed dramatically, too, with many in the NFL’s headquarters on Park Avenue in New York – including, most importantly, commissioner Roger Goodell – saying they erred in opposing earlier demonstrations and now stand with protesters.

Troy Vincent, the league’s executive vice president of football operations, is inspired by the players’ efforts.

“I’m proud of all athletes, including NFL players, who are using their platforms to speak on issues that are important to them and their communities,” Vincent wrote to The Undefeated in a text message.

“In the demonstration of humanity for Black lives, people of conscious are standing against disparities in income, housing, education, criminal codes and racism underscored by senseless violence and death that must end. This is the hope of all athletes as they join with others to bring understanding and unity to end racism.”

The fans in Kansas City must not have gotten the memo.

The players’ show of unity during the season opener didn’t occur during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” No players kneeled. No fists were held high. And yet, there was definitely booing.

Because of social distancing guidelines as a result of COVID-19, only about 17,000 fans were permitted to attend the Chiefs’ 34-20 lid-lifting victory. (In Week 1, Kansas City and the Jacksonville Jaguars were the only clubs that had fans at their home fields.) The Chiefs’ supporters made an impact, though, and in the process laid bare the truth behind what truly drives many in opposition to athletes, particularly Black NFL and NBA players, pushing to create awareness about issues involving policing: racism.

“We know it was never about the flag,” said longtime civil rights activist Mark Thompson, who hosts the Make it Plain podcast. “It was never about the military. This was always about mourning and memorializing those who had been killed in this country due to police violence.”

NFL decision-makers get it now, they say.

Goodell and his top lieutenants have tried to prove their newfound commitment by increasing the league’s social justice footprint, pledging to donate $250 million over a 10-year period. Then there are other components intended to show the league now wants to be an ally in the fight for positive change. During the league’s kickoff week, “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” traditionally known as the Black national anthem, was part of pregame ceremonies. The messages “It Takes All of Us” and “End Racism” were stenciled on all end zone borders for home openers. Players have worn helmet decals honoring victims of systemic racism.

Of course, as long as Kaepernick remains on the outside looking in at the NFL, many of the league’s detractors will view all of its efforts as nothing more than an empty public relations campaign. And for that, the league only has itself to blame, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of the civil rights organization Color of Change.

“It absolutely represents a deep failure by the NFL at every phase of what’s happened,” Robinson said. “In many ways, the booing [at Arrowhead Stadium] is a result of how they handled the situation on the front end. … Now they’re just dealing with the effects of that, the impact of that. It’s going to take some time to turn that around, because they’re in the midst of what they created.”

To be sure, from the moment Kaepernick’s demonstration became public, the league made many missteps. That established, what occurred in Kansas City, and likely will occur at games throughout the season in which fans are present, has more to do with what happened in 1619 rather than 2016. The destructive legacy of slavery continues to this day, Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude Jr. said.

“It’s who we are,” said Glaude, author of the New York Times bestseller, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own.

“We consistently try to resist confronting what we’ve done and what we continue to do. We keep saying that this is not America. And when we say this, this is the ugliness, the racism, the vitriol, the hatred, the grievance. This is who we are. And until we admit it, we’ll never be able to change.”

Regardless of the pushback, Boldin said, he expects the players to keep pushing.

“The needle would be moving faster if we didn’t live in a divided country,” he said. “We understand that there’s opposition to the changes we’re trying to create. But you also understand that you have to keep doing the work.”

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.