American football, the most popular sport in the United States, kicks off its season tonight, but instead of the usual holiday-like atmosphere surrounding opening day, the event is clouded by concerns over the coronavirus and controversial protests for racial justice.
The National Football League’s (NFL) opening matchup features the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs playing the Houston Texans, but don’t expect the contest to resemble a normal game.
For one, the stands will appear fairly empty. Tonight’s game will be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, which has a capacity of more than 76,000, but the team is only going to allow 22% capacity.
Fans will be required to wear masks and maintain social distancing, according to the Chiefs’ website.
Many teams around the league will not be allowing any fans in the stadiums, at least for now.
Fans will not be the only ones missing. Reportedly, some 60 players in the league have said they are opting out of games for now, citing virus-related health concerns.
Players and team staff are tested daily, with game day being an exception as their eligibility to play will be announced the day before. The NFL said that during the week of September 5, 44,510 tests had been administered to a total of 8,349 players and staff.
The sidelines also will look very different, as there will be no cheerleaders, mascots or sideline reporters.
In addition to the national anthem, which is traditionally played before the game, the NFL will play the song “Lift Every Voice,” which is considered by some to be the Black national anthem. It’s unclear if or how many players will kneel in protest during "The “Star-Spangled Banner,” a controversy dating to 2016 when former player Colin Kaepernick first knelt.
On the field, players will be allowed to add social justice message decals to their helmets, and the NFL will paint “End Racism” and “It Takes All of Us” in the end zones for every game.
After the game, the tradition of players exchanging greetings, hugs, handshakes and trading jerseys will be ended as the players maintain social distancing.
The National Basketball Association has taken many similar measures but has faced a drop-off in TV viewership. How NFL fans will react remains to be seen.