When the NFL begins another season Thursday, there will be more fans at Raymond James Stadium to watch Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys than there were at the same site for Super Bowl 55 in February. After the stark, jarring images of games played in empty or near-empty stadiums last fall, the return of noisy, cheering fans is one step toward normalcy.
But it would be a mistake to assume everything is going to be the way it was.
Instead, there are jarring reminders that the NFL — like the rest of the country — isn’t out of the clear just yet with the pandemic. League officials and teams are still trying to contain the contagious delta variant, which has already sidelined some vaccinated players and coaches. Despite an encouraging 93% vaccination rate among NFL players, there are notable holdouts who have refused to get the COVID-19 shots, fueling a growing tension between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated.
The NFL landscape, too, has changed beyond the pandemic. Since the last time full crowds were the norm, the league has embraced social justice. In addition to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” fans will be serenaded with “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the spiritual commonly referred to as the Black national anthem, before the league’s “marquee” events — the first game of the year, the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the draft. Players have been given the green light to display social justice messages on their helmets, and slogans like “End Racism” will be painted in end zones.
Television ratings fell 7% last season — a drop after two years of steady 5% growth — and 2021’s numbers were the league’s lowest since the 2017 season, the year that Colin Kaepernick-style protests spread across the league and critics like then-President Trump were talking boycotts.
But even with last year’s lower ratings, the NFL, when it is compared to everything else in the market, remains a juggernaut.
The league re-upped its media rights deal in March to the tune of $113 billion over the next 13 years. Its partners in CBS, NBC, ESPN and Fox were likely more than happy to accommodate the price tag, given the NFL accounted for seven of the top 10 most-watched programs on television in 2020 — and 28 of the top 100.
Only two other sporting events — Game 6 of the World Series and the College Football Playoff National Championship game — cracked the list.
The NFL dominating television ratings, is, at least, comfortably familiar. There are other developments in the game that will take some adjustments on the parts of players, coaches, owners and fans.
“I don’t know when normal is going to occur again, and I don’t know if normal ever will again,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in February. “I don’t know if anybody here can (answer) that. I know this: we have learned to operate in a very difficult environment. We have found solutions. And we’ll do it again.”
Brady had a point to make earlier this week. In revealing that he’d contracted COVID-19 shortly after Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl parade, the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback told the Tampa Bay Times that the coronavirus is going to be “more of a factor” in 2021 compared to last year due to the return of the fans.
Ron Rivera agreed. The Washington coach has seen firsthand the difficulties that the virus can still bring — his football team placed more players on the COVID-19 reserve list in training camp than it did all of last year.
Most of those cases were due to contact tracing, but Washington notably has a number of players who have “dug in their heels” and refused to get vaccinated.
Washington’s vaccination rate — those players who have gotten at least one shot — was 90% as of Aug. 24. That percentage stayed roughly the same after roster cutdowns last week, Rivera told The Washington Times.
“It is going to be a little harder, but you’ve got to count on each other even more so,” Rivera said. “We have to pay attention to the little details. Obviously I’d love to have 100% (players vaccinated) but we don’t. But because we still have a few guys (unvaccinated), that means we all have to be on [top of the protocols.]”
Tensions have escalated, at times, during the offseason over the league’s push to get players vaccinated. While the vaccine isn’t mandatory for players, the league set strict protocols for unvaccinated players and put forth other policies as a way to essentially strong-arm them to change their minds.
From the team side, coaches especially want players to get vaccinated so they minimize the risk of missing extended time from the virus. Unvaccinated players who test positive must miss at least 10 days and those exposed to the virus have to miss a minimum of five days — a policy that sidelined Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Carson Wentz in training camp.
Vaccinated players, by contrast, don’t have to quarantine if exposed to the virus and can return as soon as they can produce two negative tests with no symptoms.
Even with the protocols, some players have been resistant. Wentz, for instance, cited it was his “personal choice” to be unvaccinated — a common explanation among players who’ve skipped the shots — and asked reporters to respect his privacy.
“Trust me, I’ve weighed a lot of things,” Wentz said. “I know what’s at stake. … That’s just where I’m at, where I’m at with my family.”
Breakthrough cases — vaccinated individuals catching the virus — have happened. Though according to the NFL, unvaccinated players tested positive at a rate seven times higher than vaccinated players this summer. From Aug. 1 to Aug. 21, the league had 68 cases among players and staff — a number that caused the NFL to up their frequency in testing for vaccinated individuals to once per week. (Unvaccinated players are tested daily.)
By contrast, last year, from Aug. 1 to Oct. 7, the league had 84 cases.
Social justice, the NFL and police
Charles Leno Jr. says his view of the police can be boiled down to this: There are good officers … and there are bad officers. The Washington left tackle still remembers how he felt in college after an officer followed him and his teammates around a mall, eventually asking them to empty their pockets. But Leno remains thankful for the officer who pulled him aside as a kid growing up in Oakland, California, and educated him on “the danger” of playing outside with a realistic-looking toy gun.
Leno, like many NFL players, became more politically involved and outspoken over the past few years. The 29-year-old visited a Los Angeles police department in the spring of 2019 to help try and bridge the gap between the communities of color and police as part of the NFL’s Inspire Change program.
“I mention this all the time, we spend hours and hours putting in film work, being on the field and dedicating a lot of time for our training and we’re playing a football game,” Leno said. “Those guys are supposed to be protecting and serving. So they should put in the same amount, if not more. I think that’s where the disconnect is, in terms of training.”
The NFL’s involvement is a noticeable shift from the league’s rejection of Colin Kaepernick in 2016 after the former quarterback began kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality.
Last year, in the wake of George Floyd and other police-related shootings, Goodell voiced support for the “Black Lives Matter” movement and launched league-wide initiatives. Those have continued into 2021, with the league donating $95 million over the past few years to social justice organizations.
Dave Zirin, author of “The Kaepernick Effect: How a Knee Helped Inspire A Generational Revolt,” said Kaepernick’s actions “normalized” athletes using their platform to speak about social justice. In turn, society has largely grown accustomed to it, Zirin said.
“People have to understand that NFL players talking about anything is actually a sea change in the culture of the National Football League,” Zirin said. “You go back even to the great eras of athletic revolt in the 1960s and 70s, you don’t see the NFL pop up very much, if at all during that time. … That’s been changed and altered fundamentally by what Colin Kaepernick did in the 2016 season.”
Not everyone has embraced activist players and a more “woke” league. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has called the decision to play the Black national anthem before games “asinine.” Fox Nation’s Tomi Lahren tweeted in July that the NFL’s social justice efforts “That should do wonnnnders for ratings” with a thumbs-up emoji.
But polls indicate the public is more accepting of the league‘s social activism. As of June 2020, 52% of Americans said they viewed it as OK for players to kneel during the national anthem — a sizable uptick from the 28% who agreed in 2016, according to YouGov.
Anecdotally, Leno has picked up on a shift. He said the conversation around athletes and social justice is “completely different” from the early days of Kaepernick.
“You’re still going to have those [jerks] out there,” Leno said. “That’s life. If we didn’t have [jerks] in this world, we wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Correction This report has been updated to indicate that the NFL plans to make a performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” a part of the league‘s “marquee” events — the first game of the year, the Pro Bowl, the Super Bowl and the draft — not every game.