National anthem protests spread, mutate as NFL season opens on 9/11 anniversary

Two team-wide solidarity displays, only a handful of kneelers.

Miami Dolphins players Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, and Jelani Jenkins kneel during the National Anthem prior to Sunday’s game. CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Brashear
Miami Dolphins players Arian Foster, Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills, and Jelani Jenkins kneel during the National Anthem prior to Sunday’s game. CREDIT: AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

When the NFL season kicked off Thursday night, Denver Broncos defensive back Brandon Marshall knelt during the national anthem.

On Sunday, Marshall’s colleagues around the league got their chance to weigh in on the spreading act of protest popularized by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick this preseason. Several took that opportunity, in varying ways.

Athletes at professional and junior levels across multiple sports have followed Kaepernick’s lead since he announced he is “not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color” in August. In addition to protesting the treatment of minority Americans by police around the country, Kaepernick plans to donate his first $1 million in salary this season to non-profit groups working in communities especially affected by police brutality.

On Sunday, Miami running back Arian Foster, safety Michael Thomas, wide receiver Kenny Stills, and linebacker Jelani Jenkins followed Kaepernick’s lead. The four men stood during a video tribute to the September 11 terrorist attacks, then took a knee for the anthem.

No other players declined to stand for the Star-Spangled Banner on Sunday, though New England Patriots starters Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty each raised a fist on-camera after the end of the anthem before Sunday’s night game.

But two teams — the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks — stood with their arms interlocked during pre-game performances. Chiefs players issued a press statement explaining they intend to “work with local law enforcement officials and leaders to make an impact on the Kansas City Community.”

The Seahawks’ move is a little different, as wide receiver Doug Baldwin explained his team’s move to fans on Twitter. The players wanted “to express a desire to bring people together,” he wrote. Teammate Jeremy Lane had previously said he would kneel for the song during week one, but agreed to join his teammates in standing.

On the opposite sideline, meanwhile, Foster’s decision to kneel raised the profile of the anthem protests. The four-time Pro Bowl running back is the most prominent individual player to follow Kaepernick’s lead to date.

Together, members of the four teams ensured each of the league’s afternoon and evening timeslots on Sunday featured players seeking to navigate between Kaepernick’s outspoken position and a more conciliatory mode of drawing attention to the anthem.

Marcus Peters of the Chiefs also raised a single fist and bowed his head during the song, echoing the pose famously struck by American Olympians during a medal ceremony at the 1968 games.

Elsewhere around the league this afternoon, fan and journalist reports indicate nearly all players simply stood as the anthem was played. Two games remain to be played in week one. The Monday night games, including Kaepernick’s first regular-season game of the year, do not fall on the anniversary of the nation’s worst terrorist attack.

The sports world has seen a general increase for two years now in pro athletes using their platforms to call attention to police violence. The anthem has become a flashpoint for such protests since Kaepernick first declined to stand for the anthem during a preseason game .

Professional soccer player and United States Women’s National Team star Megan Rapinoe has begun taking a knee for the anthem before games recently. And on Saturday, a player from Indiana State University took a knee during the anthem ahead of the team’s NCAA Division I tilt with Minnesota.

High school players have gotten into the act too. Captains from Watkins Mills in the Washington, D.C., area knelt before a game Friday. On Saturday, almost every member of a Philadelphia-area high school team took a knee for the anthem, following their coach’s lead.

This post has been updated to reflect additional player activity at Sunday night’s Patriots-Cardinals game.