US President Donald Trump began Sunday with yet another attack on NFL players kneeling in protest of the national anthem.
Shortly before his treasury secretary insisted the president was not picking a fight, Trump doubled down on his angry remarks from a rally in Alabama on Friday night . The president repeated his challenge to NFL team owners to “fire or suspend” any player who fails to stand and encouraged fans to stop attending games until the owners take 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!” Trump wrote on Twitter. “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back US.”
Such protests began last season when the then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt to highlight issues of racial injustice. On Saturday night, they spilled into another sport, baseball. The Oakland A’s catcher Bruce Maxwell knelt during the anthem before a home game against the Texas Rangers.
Trump’s tweets came at the outset of what was expected to be a day of protest across the NFL. At Wembley Stadium in London, the day’s first game duly saw around 25 players from the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens kneel during the playing of the US anthem.
The Guardian’s Sean Ingle, covering the game , reported that no white players appeared to kneel but “many players, coaches and even the Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan linked arms instead as they stood, showing unity for their black team-mates against Trump”.
Trump made his first remarks at a Friday night rally for Republican senator Luther Strange, who is running in a special election next week to remain in the seat vacated by attorney general Jeff Sessions.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that [foul language degrading women used here] off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” said Trump.
“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.
“But do you know what’s hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium.
“I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”
Trump also complained about rules introduced to improve safety in the NFL, which has a serious problem with head injuries.
The president’s remarks and his withdrawal on Saturday of a White House invitation to the NBA-champion Golden State Warriors prompted a remarkably strong response from leading professional athletes. NBA great LeBron James called the president a “bum” while Buffalo Bills NFL running back LeSean McCoy called him other rude things.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell expressed disappointment with Trump’s “divisive” comments while the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close friend of Trump, was among the team owners to side with their players. In a statement, Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president”.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
In London, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said of the actions of his players and coaching staff: “We respect their demonstration and support them 100%.”
On Sunday, treasury secretary Stephen Mnuchin told CNN: “I don’t think it’s a question of a fight the president wants to have.” Trump was responding, he said, to “the NFL saying people should be able to decide what they want to do and disrespect the United States flag”.
“He thinks this is about respect for the military and so many people who put their lives at risk and what the country stands for,” Mnuchin said. “For as long as I can remember people have stood in honuor of the country. This isn’t about politics. If people want to talk politics off the field when they’re not working for the NFL, they have the absolute right to do that.”
“This is not about Republicans or Democrats. Players have the right to free speech off the field. On the field this is about respect for lots of people.”
On Saturday, the former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh , now with the University of Michigan Wolverines, branded Trump’s comments “ridiculous”, regarding the protection of free speech under the first amendment.
“Check the constitution,” he said.