By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Football League gets its turn to tackle COVID-19 and player protests when the 2020 season kicks off on Thursday, with three clubs in flashy new homes, Tom Brady calling plays for a new team and Washington searching for a new name.
While North America's other pro sports leagues have blazed a trail finding ways to operate without spectators in a global pandemic, the NFL has set its own course, beginning with the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs hosting the Houston Texans with a limited number of fans at Arrowhead Stadium.
The NFL has rolled out strict health and safety protocols that include requiring all coaches and staff in the bench area to wear masks and has recommended players on the sidelines do the same.
But the league has left it up to the 32 teams and local officials to decide if it is safe to allow spectators into their stadiums with coronavirus outbreaks flaring in much of the country. The lack of a uniform policy has sparked complaints from coaches of a competitive advantage for clubs with fans in the stands.
"We do not believe it's a competitive advantage," said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell during a pre-season conference call.
"We obviously have varying capacities across the league and from our standpoint, we want to invite our fans in if we can do it safely and we can do it with the full support of local officials."
As the season starts, six teams have said they will have fans in the stands including the Chiefs and Dallas Cowboys. Others like the Chicago Bears and Las Vegas Raiders have shuttered stadiums for the entire season.
Most are taking a week-by-week approach, leaving the door open for a possible partial return of spectators if or when conditions permit.
The new season also brings a new attitude toward player protests, which the league fumbled four years ago when San Francisco 49ers Black quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked controversy by kneeling during the playing of the national anthem to put a spotlight on police brutality.
The NFL says it now fully supports the players' fight for social justice and equality following a summer of protests across the United State triggered by the killing of an unarmed Black man George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis and the police shooting of another Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
"What Colin (Kaepernick) did was he opened the eyes of many people in this country, many athletes and he showed us just how powerful our platform was," Houston Texans safety and NFL players' union executive committee member Michael Thomas told Reuters. "Unfortunately, not everyone probably felt the same way at the time."
The NFL will back up its support with a number of initiatives, including allowing players to wear decals on their helmets with names of victims of systemic racism and police brutality.
The offseason saw the NFL confronted with a racism issue closer to home when the Washington Redskins, under mounting pressure from sponsors, relented and agreed to drop the team name long criticized as racist by Native American rights groups.
Washington starts the season as the NFL's no name team with no timeline set for when they might select one.
The absence of fans will make for dull house warmings when new multi-billion dollar facilities are unveiled in Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
The futuristic SoFi Stadium built at a cost of $5 billion will be the new address for both Los Angeles teams, the Chargers and Rams, while the Raiders move from rundown Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum to Allegiant Stadium, their slick $1.9 billion home just off the Vegas Strip.
Six-times Super Bowl champion quarterback Tom Brady will also have a new home after signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following two decades of unprecedented success with the New England Patriots.
Brady will be reunited with one of his favorite targets, tight end Rob Gronkowski, who came out of retirement to join the three-time NFL most valuable player in a bid for another Super Bowl.
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; additional reporting Amy Tennery; Editing by Bill Berkrot)