SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
And now it's time for sports.
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SIMON: The NFL is back, but few fans in the stands and maybe no anthem. And can stars in the U.S. Open play their best if nobody's there to cheer them on? NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. That's what the U.S. Open sounds like.
Good morning, Tom. How are you?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Thank you for the applause. Good morning.
SIMON: Kansas City and Houston played Thursday. The Chiefs won 34-20. But what happened before these games in the NFL is almost as noticeable as the games, isn't it? Notable, I should say. Yeah, yeah.
GOLDMAN: It is, yeah. And in other leagues - it has been notable in other leagues since they started during the pandemic. And, you know, there's a lot of interest in what will happen in the NFL for obvious reasons. The league has generated so much controversy after Colin Kaepernick started kneeling during the anthem a few years ago. So Thursday night, the TV locked on the one Kansas City Chief player who knelt during the anthem. The Houston Texans decided to stay in the locker room during the pregame ceremony. There was a moment when Houston players came out and when the two teams went on the field and locked arms in a show of unity in the fight for equality. And some of the 15,000 or so fans that were able to go to the game - they booed, whether they booed the moment or because the visiting Texans had just come out on the field, we're not sure. But in the context of what's going on in this country right now, it was notable.
SIMON: Yeah. The activism that has become important to players is taking all kinds of forms. The Atlanta Falcons, tomorrow's game, they're making the late Congressman John Lewis an honorary captain. And I want to ask you about a video the Miami Dolphins players have released. Here's a clip from that.
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MIAMI DOLPHINS FOOTBALL PLAYER #1: We need changed hearts, not just a response to pressure.
MIAMI DOLPHINS FOOTBALL PLAYER #2: Enough. No more fluff and empty gestures.
MIAMI DOLPHINS FOOTBALL PLAYER #3: We need owners with influence and pockets bigger than ours...
MIAMI DOLPHINS FOOTBALL PLAYER #4: To call up officials...
MIAMI DOLPHINS FOOTBALL PLAYER #5: And flex political power.
GOLDMAN: It, Scott, was quite an affecting poem, actually, the team members recited - Black and white players explaining how they'll stay in the locker room before games. You know, they're staking out a position shared by a growing number of pro athletes that it's time to go beyond kneeling and gestures and work for substantive change. And I think it's going to be interesting to watch this season, what if anything, players and owners actually do along those lines. More interesting than seeing who's kneeling and who's not.
SIMON: What about fan reaction? Are there - do we have any handle on that?
GOLDMAN: You know, it's tiny sample size. I mentioned the booing in Kansas City. And the ratings for the opener were down from last year maybe that was because of the new activism. But then also could have been other factors. For once during the pandemic, it was a crowded sports calendar Thursday night with basketball and hockey playoffs. The U.S. Open was going on. Plus, there was no NFL preseason. This was the first football action since the last Super Bowl. So no time for fan interest to build over the last several weeks.
SIMON: NBA ratings are down, aren't they?
GOLDMAN: Yeah, they are. And a recent Harris poll showed those who identified as sports fans are watching less NBA. And the polls said nearly 40% of those who are watching less say it's become, you know, the NBA has become too political. Just what the president tweeted this month, will this cause players to stop their activism? Hard to believe. There's a huge commitment to this. And the NBA supports its players.
SIMON: U.S. Open, women's final today, Naomi Osaka versus Victoria Azarenka. Will the power of Osaka serve prevail?
GOLDMAN: It certainly may. You know, you never count out Azarenka. You see how she roared back to beat Serena Williams in the semifinals after getting blasted in the first set. I think it's going to be a great match even without the star power of Williams. Osaka and Azarenka, certainly are stars in their own right.
SIMON: Tom, you're a former competitive tennis player.
GOLDMAN: I am.
SIMON: I hate to put you on the spot. Yeah, you didn't - yeah. Yeah. Did you find it hard for top player - do you think it's hard for top players to perform with no fans?
GOLDMAN: Well, I certainly was able to do it because I never had a fan presence.
GOLDMAN: The U.S. has been notable for its eerie silence, and the players who do perform in front of many say there is a difference. Some talk about the need to be more demonstrative to fire themselves up. The best players have said they definitely miss the roars they're accustomed to. So yeah, it's made a difference.
SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thank you so much. Here's my ovation for the player you once were, OK?
GOLDMAN: And I thank you. I thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.