MINNEAPOLIS — As the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers played football in an empty stadium during a pandemic on Sunday, artificial crowd noise droned, sometimes drowning out the voices of players and coaches on the field. It sounded something like locusts.
In the strangest, saddest edition of their rivalry, the Packers won 43-34 as the Vikings defense observed social distancing norms, frequently staying at least six feet away from Aaron Rodgers and his receivers.
What you noticed most, sitting in a massive press box and staring at acres of empty purple seats, was the silence of the horns.
One of the signatures of the gameday experience at U.S. Bank Stadium is the massive Gjallarhorn that juts out of the concourse to the East of the massive scoreboard in front of the windows that reveal downtown Minneapolis.
Before every other Vikings game at the newish stadium, a former player or Minnesota celebrity has pretended to blow into the horn, which then blared. On Sunday, the family of George Floyd stood behind the horn before the game, but did not produce a sound.
A Vikings news release said that the moment of silence called attention “to these silenced voices and collectively work toward a better, more just society.”
On the white line at the back of one end zone, the words “End racism” were stenciled. The back of the other end zone read: “It takes all of us.”
About a half-hour before kickoff, the scoreboard featured Alicia Keys performing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song known as the Black national anthem, as Vikings players, coaches and staff stood at the far goal line, many with arms linked.
Before kickoff, a recording of The Sounds of Blackness played the national anthem as a handful of Vikings knelt and others draped their arms over teammates’ shoulder pads. Most of the players wore shirts reading “Be The Change” on the front and “Say Their Names” on the back, referring to victims of police brutality like Floyd, who died in May in Minneapolis when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck.
The Packers remained in the locker room through both songs, emerging as the anthem ended.
Then they dominated the game in a quiet stadium that seemed to benefit the Packers offense and Rodgers’ ability to draw defenses offsides with his signal-calling.
“It was strange,” Vikings safety Harrison Smith said. “But it was strange for them, too.”
Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said the artificial crowd noise mimicked the reaction his team typically gets at home when “we’re not playing very good.”
Having no fans meant that the Vikings didn’t have any chance of being embarrassed the way the Kansas City Chiefs were on Thursday night, in the NFL season-opener.
When Chiefs and Texans players linked arms at midfield in a gesture literally designed to support their stated theme of “Unity,” Chiefs fans booed while executing the “Tomahawk Chop.”
The NFL is adopting the language and symbolism of anti-racism, but this is the league that blackballed then-49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 to protest police brutality and extrajudicial killings of Black people.
Kaepernick hasn’t played since 2016. And as the last minutes played out at U.S. Bank Stadium, Kaepernick tweeted: “While the NFL runs propaganda about how they care about Black Life, they are still actively blackballing Eric Reid (@E _ Reid35) for fighting for the Black community. Eric set 2 franchise records last year, and is one of the best defensive players in the league.”
Reid knelt alongside Kaepernick. He played for Carolina last year. He is one of the NFL’s best available free agents.
This is why the NFL lacks credibility. Anyone can mouth a phrase or paint a slogan.
End racism? The NFL doesn’t have the ability, and wouldn’t have the will even if it did.
What the league could do is employ outspoken Black athletes, like Kaepernick and Reid.
Any gesture falling short of that will be empty as the league’s stadiums, and as annoying as the drone of artificial crowd noise.
Jim Souhan writes for the Star Tribune (Minneapolis).