The season opener for the hometown Super Bowl champs Thursday night against a contender from Texas marked one of the biggest public gatherings in Kansas City since the onset of a pandemic.
It also came after months of national conflict over the resulting COVID-19 quarantines, race, policing and the Chiefs’ use of American Indian imagery.
The game swirled them all together. Gestures by the players, teams and the league in solidarity with a push for racial justice also prompted boos from fans loud enough to be heard on the national telecast of the game.
The Chiefs’ 34-20 win over the Houston Texans launched the NFL season and the league’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus in its high-contact sport. This game took place in front of roughly 17,000 fans — about a fifth the number usually allowed into Arrowhead Stadium.
League-sanctioned messages of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement showed up in song, on pre-produced videos, on the turf and on the players’ uniforms.
“With everything going on in this country, we wanted to show that we were unified as a league,” Chiefs’ superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes said in a post-game interview. “We’re not gonna let playing football distract us from what we’re doing to make a change in this world.”
In 2016, San Francisco 49ers’ quarterback Colin Kaepernick began kneeling during the national anthem before games to protest the treatment of Black people by police. Some other players joined him, drawing criticism from conservatives and angry attacks from President Donald Trump. Those critics saw the silent protests as unpatriotic.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now’?” the president said in 2017.
Kaepernick's stock had been rising in the league. But he's been unable to get a contract with a team since shortly after he started the NFL protests.
For a time, NFL players faced discipline from the league for kneeling during the national anthem. That changed in the aftermath of street protests that spread across the country this year in the wake of one high-profile case after the next of police shooting Black people.
Now the NBA has “Black Lives Matters” emblazoned on its courts and players put social justice slogans on their jerseys. On Thursday night at Arrowhead, several players had similar phrases on their helmets. "End Racism" was painted in one end zone and "It Takes All of Us" appeared at the other end of the field.
Mahomes arrived at the stadium wearing a jersey from the Kansas City Monarchs, a team in the Negro Leagues that formed 100 years ago. He wore a shirt during warmups with “vote” across his chest. Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson had “end racism” on the back of the shirt he wore over his jersey before the game.
A video played at Arrowhead before the game with a message of social justice that declared “it takes all of us.” The Chiefs players locked arms while watching.
Later, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was played. It's often referred to as the Black national anthem and is slated to be played before every NFL game this first week of the season. It drew some boos from fans.
Chiefs players locked arms and stayed on the field for both that anthem and the “Star-Spangled Banner.” All but linebacker Alex Okafaor stood for the national anthem. He kneeled, with a fist in the air and two teammates’ hands on his shoulders.
The visiting Houston Texans left the field before both songs to avoid favoring one anthem over the other.
After the game, Texans coach and general manager Bill O’Brien explained where his team stood.
“The players decided, you know, they wanted to make sure that people understood … it’s really not about the flag,” he said. “It is about making sure, you know, that people understand that black lives do matter. And there is a systemic racism problem in this country.”
Before the coin toss, players on both teams gathered at midfield field for a moment of silence that the public address announcer said was “dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country.”
With the players huddled together, the scoreboard displayed a statement from both teams:
We support quality. We must end racism. We believe in justice for all. We must end for police brutality. We choose unconditional love. We believe Black Lives Matter. It takes all of us.
That moment also brought a smattering of boos from the crowd.
The social justice messages come after many NFL players, including Mahomes and cornerback Tyrann Matthieu, criticized the league for ignoring racism and punishing players who have protested it.
“We, the NFL, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest,” said Commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this week. “We, the NFL, believe Black Lives Matter.”
Mahomes and Mathieu said earlier this week they have full support from the Chiefs organization.
“Whatever we do,” Mathieu said, “we’ll try our best to display unity, togetherness, even if that’s with the opposing team.”
The two stars have voiced support for the “More Than a Vote” campaign, an initiative aimed at fighting voter suppression within the Black community.
The offseason’s national discussion of racial inequity also brought scrutiny to the Chiefs and criticism that its use of faux tribal practices ranged somewhere between cultural theft and cruel caricature. (The Washington football team ditched its nickname a few months ago.)
Thursday night was the first time the Chiefs banned fans from coming to the game in war paint (the team once had a mascot horse called “Warpaint”) and feathered headdresses. The team also took steps to squash the so-called “tomahawk chop.”
With the coronavirus still looming, fans also sat apart from each other in ticket pods and were told to wear face masks unless they were eating or drinking. Chiefs head coach Andy Reid war a face shield that fogged up much of the damp night.
The Kansas Department of Health and Environment lifted its mandatory quarantine requirement for people who go to gatherings of 500 people or more outside the state if they wear masks and stay 6 feet away from other fans.