Players kneel, skip anthem as NFL season kicks off

Los Angeles (AFP)


Dozens of players and coaches dropped to one knee while six teams stayed in their locker rooms during the US national anthem as the NFL's new season got in full swing on Sunday.

After months of protests against racial injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd in police custody, the opening Sunday of America's most popular sport saw a surge in athlete activism.

Of the 18 teams involved in the nine early games, six -- Green Bay, Miami, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Philadelphia and the New York Jets -- opted to remain in their locker room during the pre-game rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."

The teams also stayed inside for the playing of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing", a song regarded as the "black national anthem" that the NFL requested be played before each game in the opening round of fixtures.

Elsewhere, Indianapolis Colts head coach Frank Reich dropped to one knee while his players linked arms around him during the anthem ahead of their game against the Jaguars in Jacksonville.

The Colts explained their protest in a statement issued on Twitter with the caption: "We will not be silent, we will not be neutral, we will not be passive."

- 'Not protesting anthem' -

"Our intent is to bring attention to the issue of systemic racism and the injustice inherit therein," the Colts statement said.

"We also wanted to demonstrate a symbolic gesture of how we believe meaningful change happens. TO BE CLEAR -- we were not protesting the flag, the anthem, or the men and women who wear the uniform.

"The timing of this action is meant to highlight that the presence, power, and oppression of racism remains inconsistent with the unity and freedoms of what it means to be an American."

In Atlanta, members of the Seattle Seahawks and Falcons on the field all took a knee immediately after their game kicked off as the ball went dead.

The Seahawks players and coaches wore t-shirts carrying the slogan "We Want Justice" as they warmed up.

In Baltimore, quarterback Lamar Jackson led a majority of Ravens players who took a knee or sat down during the anthem. Ravens players also wore t-shirts bearing the words: "End Racism" and "Injustice against one of us is injustice against all of us."

Player protests have divided the NFL and its followers since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took up the cause against racial injustice and police brutality in 2016.

Kaepernick was widely vilified for his protests and has effectively been shut out of the NFL since being released by the 49ers in 2017.

The NFL initially opposed Kaepernick's protests, with the league ruling that players should be on the field and standing during the US anthem.

However after months of protests across the United States against racial justice, the NFL scrapped its old anthem rules and said protests would be allowed.

This season the NFL has launched a number of initiatives to demonstrate its support for activists campaigning against racial injustice.

End zones across the league will bear the words "End Racism" and "It Takes All of Us", while players are allowed to wear helmet stickers featuring the names of victims of racism.