KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The NFL’s new stance encouraging players to take a stand against racial injustice got its first test as some fans of the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs booed during a moment of silence to promote the cause, touching off a fresh debate on how players should use their voice.
The controversy erupted Thursday night just moments before the league’s 101st season kicked off. After the Houston Texans remained in the locker room during the national anthem, fans booed them when they emerged from the tunnel at its conclusion. The booing continued as the two teams walked to midfield and shook hands, their interlocked arms stretched from one end zone to the other during what was supposed to be a moment of silence.
Fans, politicians and players all weighed in on social media and in interviews. Kansas City Councilman Eric Bunch described what happened in a tweet as “embarrassing.”
“Some NFL fans booing the players for standing and locking arms in a moment of silent unity proves that for them ‘standing for the flag' was always about perpetuating white supremacy,” said Bunch, who is white.
New York Jets offensive tackle George Fant, who is Black, praised the Chiefs and Texans for taking a stance during a Zoom call with reporters in which he only took questions about social justice.
“We just want to be treated equally," he said. “Everyone needs to be treated the same. Everyone needs to be held accountable. And for people to boo? It’s unbelievable."
After George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited nationwide protests over racial injustice and police brutality, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized to players for not listening sooner and encouraged them to protest peacefully.
Floyd, who was Black, died after a white former police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes. His death in May awakened many people, including NFL owners, to the root of the social injustice issues that led Colin Kaepernick to kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 2016. The league didn't respond to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
President Donald Trump and many of his supporters continue to criticize players across all sports leagues for keeling during the national anthem. Among them is Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, who rushed to defend fans after some news media outlets called them “classless trash.”
“'Classless trash'? The left showing their usual contempt for middle America,” tweeted Hawley, who is white. “Missouri has the best fans in the country. Don’t blame them for being tired of NFL/corporate woke politics jammed down their throats.”
The exact details of what happened were debated on social media, with some claiming that the boos were lingering from the Texans reentering the stadium. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, who is Black and has attended racial justice protests, said that wasn't what he saw while at the game.
“What I did catch was that the Chiefs had flashed a few messages, one of which said End Police Brutality and We Believe Black Lives Matter," Lucas said in an interview. “And I heard the smattering of boos. It was probably only a few seconds. It didn’t sound particularly loud. It didn’t sound like that was the consensus of the stadium whatsoever. It was one of those that I thought was unfortunate because when everyone else is silent, even if you have 50 people booing or 100, particularly with our reduced capacity, anything can be heard."
He posted on social media that there are “hundreds of thousands more around here who respect the message the players are sharing."
Chiefs coach Andy Reid said he didn’t even hear the boos, while quarterback Patrick Mahomes said the goal was “we wanted to show unity and we wanted to show how we’re going to come together and keep fighting the good fight and I hope our fans will support us like they do on the game every single day.”
Stacy Shaw, a Kansas City attorney and activist who has participated in recent protests for racial injustice, said what happened was “disgraceful,” especially given that it was the first time the team had been on the field since winning the Super Bowl.
“I was disappointed but not surprised because no matter how people are protesting systemic racism, people are going to disapprove of it,” said Shaw, who is Black. “It doesn’t matter if they are kneeling, if they are locking arms, or whatever demonstration they have against racism, people are going to oppose it.”
Fans were widely expecting players to take a stand for racial injustice as they headed into the stands, especially because they were banned for the first time from wearing headdresses and war paint amid a push for more cultural sensitivity.
“I feel like I understand people's concerns about racial injustice,” said Chris Moore, a 59-year-old information technology specialist from Shawnee, Kansas, who is white. “Again it's hard for me to put myself into the shoes of an African American or a Hispanic or someone of a different race and understand what they've gone through. I probably haven't lived that. But I would also say this: For all of us, we are all Americans. Every life matters; all lives matter. That is not a disrespect to the Black Lives Matter or any other life. We are Americans, and we should be all working together."
Other fans at the game voiced full support for anything the players did to promote the cause, including Derek Swinford, 30, of Kansas City, Missouri, who works in sales and is white.
“If they want to not show up for the anthem or kneel or show up after it's all done, whatever they want to do, that is their right as an American," he said. “I feel like anyone who is trying to dictate what another American can do in that situation is being an oxymoron. It doesn't make sense. That is what an American is, saying whatever you think."
Dennis Waszak Jr. in New York contributed to this report.