PHILADELPHIA — Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Michael Bennett sat on the team’s bench near the end of the national anthem before Thursday night’s NFL season-opening game against the Atlanta Falcons at Lincoln Financial Field.
Bennett, who previously protested during the anthem while with the Seattle Seahawks, stood behind Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins at the beginning of the anthem Thursday night. He later walked toward the Eagles’ bench and paced in front of it and then, with the song nearing its end but still in progress, sat on the bench.
Jenkins stood during the anthem and did not raise a fist, as he has done in the past. It did not appear that any Falcons players protested during the anthem Thursday.
The game’s kickoff was delayed by about 45 minutes by a storm.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell attended the game and was seen on the field beforehand speaking to Meek Mill, the rapper who was released from prison in April after receiving a controversial sentence for probation violations.
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, was returning from a trip to visit players on the West Coast and was not in attendance.
“Today, football is back,” the Players Coalition wrote on Twitter, accompanied by a photo of Jenkins, shortly before kickoff. “But, on any given night, over 450,000 people sit in jail [without] being convicted of a crime. Many are there because they can’t purchase their freedom with cash bail.”
Jenkins is a leader of the Players Coalition, the group that took the lead last year in negotiating a social justice initiative with the league. Under that deal, the NFL and teams are providing funding to community activism programs.
The season opener arrived Thursday night without an agreement in place between the NFL and the NFL Players Association on a new national anthem policy. The league and union have been deliberating on a possible compromise since coming to a standstill agreement in July that put a modified policy, along with a grievance filed by the NFLPA over that revamped policy.
Moderate owners now are willing to waive discipline for any protest by a player as part of a potential compromise if the union endorses players standing for the anthem, according to multiple people familiar with the league’s inner workings. Such a pledge by the NFLPA would amount to a nonbinding vow for players to stand, if it indeed is accompanied by owners agreeing to no discipline for any protest.
That trade-off probably would serve as the basis for a compromise between the league and union if there is to be a deal struck in the coming days or weeks. It had been clear since last week that there almost certainly would not be a deal struck before the Eagles-Falcons game. That left owners and league officials curious to see what Jenkins and other players would do Thursday.
Other NFL teams play their season openers Sunday and Monday night. Some of those close to the process expressed skepticism Thursday that an agreement will be in place by Sunday.
Nike aired an ad during NBC’s broadcast as part of its new promotional campaign that includes Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who began the players’ protest movement in 2016. This week’s unveiling of that ad campaign by Nike, the NFL’s official uniform supplier, further intensified the public debate about players’ protests and Kaepernick’s role in them.
A small number of players protested during the preseason, which began with Miami Dolphins teammates Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson and the Oakland Raiders’ Marshawn Lynch declining to stand for the anthem. Jenkins was among other players who raised a fist, and some players chose to remain off the field.
Those displays during the preseason were followed by the NFL reiterating its preference that players stand for the anthem, while adding that players would not be disciplined for any protest while the deliberations with the union were ongoing.
The May anthem policy empowered the league to fine a team for a protest by a player and left it up to each team whether a player would be disciplined for a protest. It gave players the option to remain in the locker room during the anthem. The previous anthem policy, which was in effect last season, required players to be on the field and suggested, but did not require, that they stand.
Kaepernick and other players have said the protests are designed to bring attention to racial inequality and police treatment of African Americans. President Trump and others critical of the protests have called them unpatriotic and disrespectful to the flag and the military.
Read more on the NFL: