As thousands of NFL fans gathered in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center on a warm afternoon a week before Super Bowl LI, with loud music pulsing in the background, the cacophony coming from one corner of the large square in front of the building had nothing to do with football.
Several hundred people of assorted backgrounds, religions and races assembled behind police barricades, many of them carrying signs that read “#NOBAN #NOWALL” and “Immigrants Make America Great” and “Houston Welcomes Refugees.” One man carried a poster with a picture of the Statue of Liberty behind bars and a locked prison door. Some carried bullhorns, leading chants of “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here.”
For nearly two hours Sunday, they yelled with several police, some on horses, positioned a few feet away. Shortly after 3:30 p.m., the crowd slowly began to leave the square, filing up Walker Street behind the hotel that will house hundreds of media members this week. The chants continued before the crowd dispersed and prepared for another rally at George Bush Intercontinental Airport.
The march was one of dozens around the country in the wake of President Donald Trump’s executive order, issued Friday, that suspended entry of all refugees for 120 days. Syrian refugees are barred indefinitely, and visitors from seven countries — Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen — are barred for 90 days. This march in the Super Bowl village was a reminder that even the greatest spectacle in pro sports can’t avoid the swirl of current events.
While the Super Bowl generally has been insulated from real-world issues, outside events at times impacted the run-up. In the days before the 49ers met the Bengals in Super Bowl XXIII, riots in Miami’s Overtown section, some of which occurred near the Bengals’ hotel, were discussed by players. The Giants-Bills matchup in Super Bowl XXV in Tampa was played shortly before the first Gulf War in 1991. Emotions ran high during the week, and Whitney Houston’s rendition of the national anthem brought some players and fans to tears.
At the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl in 2012 in Indianapolis, Occupy groups protested recently enacted Indiana laws that they contended hurt unions. At last year’s Super Bowl, Beyonce’s halftime show created controversy after some of her dancers were thought to be dressed like Black Panthers and making a black power salute.
Although the buildup this week will be dominated by the on-field story lines, politics will become part of the conversation. With about 5,000 media converging on the city, the sweeping culture change brought in by the Trump administration, which has led to large-scale demonstrations not seen in this country since the 1960s, will be a topic of discussion.
And perhaps a big one.
• Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is an avowed supporter of Trump, has acknowledged having a friendship with the president (he once showed off one of Trump’s red “Make America Great Again” caps in his locker) and no doubt will be asked further about his feelings about the Trump presidency. Brady mostly avoided that conversation recently, but it doesn’t mean the questions — and potentially awkward answers — won’t be discussed.
• Patriots owner Robert Kraft also has a close friendship with Trump and will be asked about his take on the controversies being stoked in Washington. Kraft also is expected to be asked about a statement from Trump issued Friday on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in which the president didn’t specifically mention Jewish people when remembering the victims of the Holocaust. Many Jewish organizations expressed outrage that Trump didn’t publicly acknowledge the murder of 6 million Jews before and during World War II. Kraft is an observant Jew who has visited Israel many times and brought players with him. Falcons owner Arthur Blank also is Jewish and could be asked about Trump’s controversial omission.
• Falcons receiver Mohamed Sanu, who grew up in a Muslim family in Sayreville, New Jersey, and spent time in Sierra Leone as a child, could be asked to address what many opponents of Trump’s executive order are calling a “Muslim ban.”
• Bill Belichick actually sent Trump a congratulatory letter on his campaign before the election, something Trump referred to the day before the vote.
It is uncertain whether there will be additional protests near any Super Bowl venues, but those who marched Sunday were passionate about being heard.
“I think it’s important for people that are here for the Super Bowl to recognize our current reality and what so many of us are going through,” said Auruba Alzibdeh, a college student born and raised in Houston. “I’m here today because I’m standing for humankind. I’m standing for compassion and for American values. I just really strongly disagree with the things that the administration decided the last week.”
Alzibedh’s friend Dina Hamadi, a Houston native of Palestinian descent, said her parents grew up in a refugee camp in Lebanon and that her grandparents still live there. She is “here fighting for the rights of refugees, because I’ve seen the circumstances that they’re living in. It’s not something that anyone should be proud of. Our country is a welcoming country. For us to deny people the right to come here, especially after they’ve received their visas, is just not fair.”
Another protester, Ira Dember, who grew up in Queens and moved to Houston in 1982, said he was “outraged” by the refugee ban.
“In the 1930s and 1940s, we kept Jews out,” he said. “Jewish families were turned back and had to go back to Europe to get slaughtered by the Nazis. Now we’re doing it to the Muslims. What’s the difference?”
Awf Al-Hashemee grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, became a refugee in Turkey in 2011 and settled in Houston four years ago. He said the vetting system for refugees is sufficient and does not need to be changed.
“The process works,” said Al-Hashemee, who said he grew up listening to Johnny Cash songs as a child and spoke English at an early age. “I came here with $600, and now I’m an engineer and own a house. This is a great country. We love America.”
Just steps away from the NFL Experience, where families gathered to celebrate the spectacle of the Super Bowl, the talk was anything but football. It most likely won’t be the last time this week that real-world issues will make their presence felt.