KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Houston Texans remained in the locker room for “The Star Spangled Banner” while the Kansas City Chiefs all stood on the sideline before the NFL’s season opener on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium.
The Texans were also in the locker room for Alicia Keys’ performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a decision Texans executive vice president of football operations Jack Easterby said was made so there would be “no misinterpretation of them celebrating one song and throwing shade on the other.”
Easterby told NBC that the team’s decision is “not about Black or white; it’s about change.”
“Lift Ev’ry Voice And Sing,” traditionally known as the Black national anthem, is expected to be performed live or played before every Week 1 NFL game.
The Chiefs left the field after both anthems and some fans booed as they headed back into the locker room.
When both teams returned to the field shortly before kickoff, players from both teams lined up together and linked arms as social justice messages, including “End Racism,” were shown on the scoreboard. A moment of silence dedicated to the fight for equality was then held, and some boos could be heard from the crowd.
Texans coach Bill O’Brien said after Kansas City’s 34-20 victory that players from both teams decided to meet in the middle of the field and lock arms. He said he did not hear the boos.
“I thought that that was a nice thing to do, so I’m not sure why they would boo that,” O’Brien said. “Maybe they were just booing us ’cause we had just come on the field as the visiting team. But yeah, I thought that that was a nice gesture.”
Chiefs coach Andy Reid also said he didn’t notice the booing.
“I thought that was kind of a neat deal, both sides coming together for a cause and the story was told there,” Reid said of the decision to meet in the middle of the field. “We can all learn from this, and really it’s just to make us all better, even a stronger country than we already are. We have a chance to just be completely unstoppable when all hands join together and that’s a beautiful thing.”
Texans safety Justin Reid said he “personally wouldn’t have been opposed to delaying the start of the game,” but the team had a conversation about that possibility and questioned whether delaying the start of the game really sends “a message” if the players still ended up playing.
The Texans decided to stay in the locker room for the national anthem and the performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” because “we didn’t want anything that was divisive,” safety Michael Thomas said.
“We wanted to make a decision that everybody can agree upon, everybody can support. And it was really just making a decision that we were done with empty gestures. It wasn’t about anthem protests or anything. We are very intentional; we are very specific of what we’re trying to focus on when it comes to social justice — and that’s trying to fight for true justice for Black and brown people being murdered by police and they’re unarmed. And that’s by calling for the Senate to bring the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to the Senate floor for vote.
“And today, going out for either anthem — to us, it would’ve been a distraction. And we just wanted to, again, make a decision as a team, and we decided it would probably be best if we all stayed in. And that’s the decision we made, and we were just going to go out there and play.”
Texans defensive end J.J. Watt said he thought it was “unfortunate” there was booing during the moment of unity.
“I didn’t fully understand that,” Watt said. “There was no flag involved. There was nothing involved other than two teams coming together to show unity.”
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said the players met and decided to “let everyone know that we had their back,” regardless of how they chose to express themselves when the songs were played.
“You can go ahead and whatever you feel is the right decision in your heart, you have your brother’s back and you have your brother’s support on this team,” Kelce said. “And we made sure that everybody was comfortable in that area and they weren’t gonna get backlash from anybody on this team for doing that. And I thought it was a great show of unity amongst both of us, the Chiefs and the Texans.”
The game was the first in major U.S. pro sports to have fans in attendance amid the coronavirus pandemic. The Chiefs allowed a crowd of 22% of stadium capacity, or about 16,000 fans, to attend. The fans were scattered throughout the three decks. The first eight rows of the lower deck closest to the field were covered by a tarp all the way around the stadium.
The playing field contained messages beyond each end zone: “It Takes All Of Us” beyond one and “End Racism” beyond the other.
The Chiefs brought an oversized Lombardi trophy onto the field for a pregame ceremony in which they unveiled a banner for their Super Bowl LIV championship.
ESPN’s Sarah Barshop contributed to this report.