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N.F.L. Kicks Off Season With Nods to Unrest and Focus on Anthem

The players took advantage of the league’s embrace of their efforts, even at the cost of alienating fans who do not want social statements to encroach on their sports viewing. The gesture of kneeling during the anthem was started by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016; he hasn’t been picked up by a team since opting out of his contract in March 2017 and has become a potent symbol of protest across sports.

“The days of ‘sports and social issues aren’t going to mix,’ that’s the old world,” said Michael Rubin, a social justice activist and the executive chairman of Fanatics, which operates merchandise websites for the N.F.L. and other major leagues. “These issues are top of mind, and the players are going to use their platforms. I don’t see any chance of this reversing course.”

Still, as the self-proclaimed “America’s game,” the N.F.L. remains a lightning rod for controversy in everything it does. To avoid being swept into the raging debate inflamed by President Trump over whether it is unpatriotic to protest during the playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” the Buffalo Bills, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Jets and the Miami Dolphins, as well as the Houston Texans, who played Thursday, stayed in their locker rooms during the anthem.

“We don’t need another publicity parade, so we’ll just stay inside until it’s time to play the game,” the Dolphins’ players said in a video released Thursday.

Other players reversed themselves. Baker Mayfield, the Cleveland Browns quarterback, said he would not kneel during the national anthem because “I have been showed that a gesture such as kneeling will only create more division or discussion about the gesture, rather than be a solution towards our country’s problems at hand,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday.

The events on Sunday were an echo of leaguewide protests that occurred three years ago after Mr. Trump called on owners to fire any players who did not stand for the national anthem. Those demonstrations, by hundreds of players across the league, were hastily planned and largely petered out after a few weeks. The league did not penalize the players, but the owners, several of whom donated lavishly to the president’s inauguration that year, later tried to tamp down player protests before dropping the effort when the players’ union filed a grievance.

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