On Pro Football: No Kneeling During Super Bowl LIII National Anthem, but Still Plenty of Talk
ATLANTA — Dr. Bernice A. King, the youngest child of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, was brought out to midfield for the coin toss before Super Bowl LIII. She was joined by two other titanic civil rights leaders, Ambassador Andrew Young and Representative John Lewis.
Before the game began, the N.F.L. also played a video in the stadium that included images of Dr. King and other civil rights leaders, interspersed with images of N.F.L. players doing charity work.
On television, CBS ran a public service announcement that showed Commissioner Roger Goodell and other league executives touring the Ebenezer Baptist Church and other landmarks associated with Martin Luther King Jr.
For the many Super Bowl viewers who do not closely follow the league, and perhaps many who do, such imagery probably came across as proper and right for a game played in Atlanta, known as the cradle of the civil rights movement.
Yet it underscored something else: a league still struggling with race and seeking a balance between fans and players who find no reason to talk about it and those who find it front and center in a simmering controversy over a player who has not played a down since the 2016 season.
The presence of the civil rights leaders did not seem to win over supporters of the player, Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who in 2016 began taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality against people of color and has not played a down since that season.
Even before the game, many resolved not to watch, including the film director Ava DuVernay, who accused the N.F.L. of “racist treatment of @Kaepernick7” and lamented an “ongoing disregard for the health + well-being of players.”
And the presence of the civil rights leaders was met with confusion, and in some cases derision, by those who feel Kaepernick has been blackballed.
“Ummmm why are Bernice King, John Lewis, and Andrew Young standing on this field giving the N.F.L. cover,” wrote the voting rights advocate Kat Calvin.
Yet the overture spoke to an effort by the N.F.L. to thread the needle between appeasing conservative fans — there were military flyovers and giant flags and shout-outs to war veterans — and addressing the questions and criticism it has received over racial issues.
It has undertaken a public relations move to line up African-American figures who either have objected to Kaepernick’s form of protest or are willing to look past it. Their message, after all, has long been about bridge-building and healing.
“My mission is #JusticeForAll,’’ Ms. King wrote on Twitter after the coin toss. “Humanity is turning the tide and our efforts must include bridge builders, strategic negotiators and ambassadors.”
In the end, Gladys Knight, who had taken aim at Kaepernick for kneeling during the song, sung the national anthem. No players knelt, the moment far less weighted than it has been in the past.
As Knight sang the anthem, the Air Force Thunderbirds flew over Mercedes-Benz Stadium, where the retractable roof was opened for the occasion. During a timeout in the third quarter, military veterans who won the Medal of Honor were shown on the stadium scoreboard and given a standing ovation. Military veterans in the stadium were encouraged to stand as well.
Still, the anthem issue promises to take another twist in the off season.
In the coming months, Kaepernick’s grievance accusing the league of colluding to keep him off a team will be ruled on by an arbitrator hearing the case.
Win or lose, the league could find itself on the defensive among fans it has been courting with its civil rights overtures.
If the league wins its case, supporters of Kaepernick may doubt the outcome — a string of lesser quarterbacks statistically have found teams. If the league loses, a conventional wisdom would be validated and the league would be in the embarrassing position of paying millions dollars to a player who has not suited up since 2016.
Kaepernick for his part has spent the past several days posting images on social media of celebrities — LeBron James, among them — supporting him.
The one thing the league seems certain to count on is that not many players kneel at all these days.
This has been a season of get back to football. Even though the Super Bowl game lacked the thrill of recent nail-biters — the Patriots beat the Rams, 13-3, the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever — the N.F.L. can take the lack of drama, in the game and off, as a sign of regaining its footing.