N.F.L. Season Starts With Eyes on Anthem and Pandemic

The league stuck to its plans to open its season Thursday with the Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans, even as pandemic spikes, player opt-outs and racial unrest forced alterations.

Kansas City Chiefs fans watching a training camp practice at Arrowhead Stadium last month, while observing social distancing guidelines. For Thursday’s game, the stadium will admit 22 percent of its normal capacity.
Kansas City Chiefs fans watching a training camp practice at Arrowhead Stadium last month, while observing social distancing guidelines. For Thursday’s game, the stadium will admit 22 percent of its normal capacity.Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The N.F.L. opened its season Thursday night with a game between the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, a milestone reminder of normalcy during a completely abnormal time.

The kickoff, which came after the Texans remained in their locker room during the national anthem and one member of the Chiefs knelt during the playing of it, marked the culmination of months of intense planning and negotiations between the league and its players’ union, who sought to resolve a central question: How could a sport contested by players who slam into one another on every play begin safely amid the coronavirus pandemic?

They agreed on several measures intended to reduce the risk of contracting the virus, from administering daily testing to restricting who can enter team facilities, and the low rate of positive tests emerging from training camp encouraged the league that its protocols were working. A number of referees and team personnel wore masks on the sideline, including Kansas City Coach Andy Reid, who wore a plastic face shield.

The opening matchup, which the Chiefs won, 34-20, showcased two of the N.F.L.’s best players, the dynamic young quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes of Kansas City and Deshaun Watson of Houston, but it also served as a microcosm of the social activism coursing through the league after a tumultuous summer. Both organizations have been among the more active in calling attention to social injustice.

Mahomes and Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu have been vocal in stressing to their teammates the importance of voting and of registering to vote, and their teammate Alex Okafor knelt Thursday night during the national anthem. Texans receiver Kenny Stills, who has knelt during the national anthem, was arrested in July in Louisville, Ky., for protesting the police killing of Breonna Taylor.

The N.F.L. had resolved not to let the pandemic stop or alter the season. Even as transmission rates surged and team facilities closed, as training camp was restructured and the preseason abandoned and locker rooms reconfigured to diminish the spread of coronavirus, the league pledged that the season would start as scheduled, on Sept. 10.

And it did, after the most challenging off-season in N.F.L. history, before a reduced number of fans on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.

Whether the season ends as scheduled, in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 7, 2021, with Super Bowl LV — or is interrupted, by a deluge of positive tests or player boycotts in protest of racial injustice — remains a mystery. The answer depends greatly on players’ and coaches’ individual discipline, the caprices of a viral scourge and the power wielded by players, who are using it, across all sports, like never before.

The sport will still be contested on a field measuring 360 by 160 feet, and the football is, same as ever, made of cowhide, but so much else about how football is played this season will look, feel and sound strange and disorienting. Here is a sampling of what that entails:

Building off the encouraging success of training camp, when daily testing confirmed the diligence of players and team personnel in adhering to protocols, the N.F.L. and its players’ union agreed to continue to test players and essential employees every day of the week, except the day of the game.

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Adnan Aftab is an internet entrepreneur, and philanthropist. He is known for co-founding Vulms.org and many others

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