President Trump on Sunday suggested fans boycott the National Football League until owners punish players who kneel in protest during the pregame national anthem, fueling and expanding a controversy that has raged since last season.
The president raised the hot-button issue during a Friday night rally in Alabama, saying NFL owners should fire players such as former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick who refuse to stand for the anthem.
His suggestion drew scorn from some pro athletes and Trump critics, who said he should butt out of the league’s affairs. NFL players Sunday responded by producing the largest number of anthem protests that the league has ever seen.
The president said Sunday that it’s disrespectful to the flag and the country and denied he was inflaming racial tensions.
“This has nothing to do with race or anything else,” Mr. Trump told reporters. “This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”
However, he tweeted again Sunday evening that “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”
Earlier, Mr. Trump renewed his criticism by suggesting there would be changes if fans took action.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” the president tweeted.
“NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.,” he also tweeted.
The president was also jousting online with players from the NBA after using his Twitter account to rescind an invitation to superstar Steph Curry to take part in the traditional visit to the White House by the league’s champion team.
“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Mr. Trump tweeted, prompting the Golden State Warriors to announce that the entire team would skip the White House visit.
Mr. Trump on Sunday tweeted that the NHL champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins, had accepted his White House invitation.
“I think that the president is standing with the vast majority of Americans who believe that our flag should be respected,” Marc Short, the White House’s director of legislative affairs, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
“I think the president’s saying that, yes, players have a First Amendment right,” Mr. Short said. “But NFL owners also have a right. And that right is that these players represent their teams. And if the owners want to get rid of them, they should be allowed to get rid of them.”
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin said Sunday that players can exercise free speech on their own time.
“You know, the NFL has all different types of rules. You can’t have stickers on your helmet; you have to have your jerseys tucked in,” Mr. Mnuchin said on ABC’s “This Week.”
“I think what the president is saying is that the owner[s] should have a rule that players should have to stand and [show] respect for the national anthem,” Mr. Mnuchin said.
“This isn’t about Democrats. It’s not about Republicans. It’s not about race,” he said. “It’s not about free speech — they can do free speech on their own time. … This is about respect for the military and the first responders and the country.”
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, said Sunday that people have the right to protest but encouraged Americans to stand during the national anthem.
He said he probably wouldn’t get involved in the issue if he were president.
“I do think, though, that the NFL makes money off of its fans,” Mr. Paul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “And the one thing you could hear from Trump saying that to that crowd is tens of thousands of people, and I think a lot of people across the country don’t understand disrespecting the flag or disrespecting the country.”
Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder linked arms Sunday night on the sidelines before his team’s game against the Oakland Raiders.
Shortly before kickoff, the Redskins issued a statement that did not mention the president’s comments directly.
“Football has always served as the great unifier, bringing people together. … We are also grateful for the sacrifices made by the brave men and women of our armed forces that have provided us the freedom to play football.”
Earlier in the day, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin, who is one of eight minority coaches in the NFL, told his team to stay in the locker room during the national anthem. Tomlin explained to CBS Sports before the game that he was concerned about making teammates choose sides in such a public manner.
“We’re not going to play politics,” Tomlin told CBS. “We’re football players, we’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem [Sunday]. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn’t have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to.”
Eye-popping photos showed Tomlin on the sideline alone during the anthem before the game between Pittsburgh and the Chicago Bears, who had also decided, as a team, to remain inside. One Steelers player did venture outside of the locker room. That was former Army Ranger and current Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside the entrance tunnel alone with his gloved hand over his heart.
Protests began early with a 9:30 a.m. (Eastern Daylight Time) kickoff in London between the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan locked arms on the sideline with many of his players. Several other players took a knee in front of the owner and their teammates.
The president later tweeted, “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable.”
Before the day was over, more than 20 of the NFL’s owners had put out statements of some kind denouncing the president’s comments and touting the NFL’s inclusiveness. Among them was Robert Kraft, who owns the New England Patriots and gave Mr. Trump a Super Bowl ring this summer.
“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday,” Kraft said in a statement. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities. Their efforts … help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones had discouraged his players from protesting during the anthem. He reiterated that stance during an interview Sunday.
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