By Rory Carroll
(Reuters) – The National Football League season kicked off under a cloud on Thursday after fans jeered during a moment of silence for social justice ahead of the Kansas City Chiefs’ game against the Houston Texans.
The Super Bowl champion Chiefs allowed less than 17,000 fans inside the normally rocking 75,000-seat Arrowhead Stadium and required the spectators to wear masks and stay socially distant during the game due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A section of supporters within the stadium jeered loudly as players from both teams linked arms before kick-off for what the league had described as “a moment of silence dedicated to the ongoing fight for equality in our country”.
“I don’t fully understand that,” Texans defensive end JJ Watt told reporters after the game. “There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas took to Twitter in defense of his city.
“We’re a good city of good people. I heard boos too,” he wrote. “But we also have hundreds of thousands more around here who respect the message the players are sharing.”
The league has left it up to the 32 teams and local officials to decide if it is safe to allow spectators into their stadiums with coronavirus outbreaks flaring in much of the country, where it has claimed more than 190,000 lives.
As the season starts, six teams have said they will have fans in the stands including the Dallas Cowboys. Others like the Chicago Bears and Las Vegas Raiders have shuttered stadiums for the entire season.
Most are taking a week-by-week approach, leaving the door open for a possible partial return of spectators if or when conditions permit.
Since quarterback Patrick Mahomes and his team raised the Lombardi trophy in early February, the issue of racial injustice and police brutality has exploded in the wake of several high profile deaths of Black people by police.
Before the moment of silence, the visiting Texans left the field during the playing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” often called the Black national anthem, and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
The Texans said they did not want to choose between celebrating one song and “throwing shade” on the other so decided to return to their locker room.
The Chiefs remained on the field for both songs with the players locking arms.
Only Chiefs linebacker Alex Okafor took a knee during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” a gesture popularized by San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick in 2016 that created controversy.
In July, the NFL said it would play both anthems before all Week One games. Earlier on Thursday the Miami Dolphins released a video saying they would stay inside their locker room during the playing of the songs, calling the NFL’s move “an empty gesture”.
The Chiefs beat the Texans 34-20 in the game, which was the first since the Chiefs won the championship 221 days ago as there was no pre-season.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll in Los Angeles and Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Michael Perry/Peter Rutherford)