Major Sports Org and Players Defy Pres. Trump on Anthem Protests

SOMERSET, N.J./WASHINGTON (Reuters) -
President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a rally for Senator Luther Strange at the Von Braun Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, Friday. (Reuters/Marvin Gentry)

Major sports players sat out, knelt and linked arms during pre-game national anthems played across the country and in London on Sunday, hours after U.S. President Donald Trump called on fans to boycott teams that do not discipline players who protest.

In the first few games since Mr. Trump stepped up his criticism of players, dozens of players and coaches of teams did not stand for the anthem and took a knee, a gesture that began last year as a protest over police treatment of African-Americans and other minorities.

One team waited off the field during the national anthem before their game in Chicago to avoid “playing politics” in divisive times, coach Mike Tomlin said.

Mr. Trump made a series of comments over the weekend criticizing players who refuse to stand for the national anthem.

“If … fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast,” Mr. Trump wrote on Sunday morning on Twitter. “Fire or suspend!”

In another tweet, Mr. Trump, who is spending the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, said that the “league should back” fans who are upset about the protests.

The form of protest began in 2016 when a professional player put one knee to the ground during pre-game renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Several players have since made similar gestures.

He initially started his protests last year by sitting during the anthem but when critics said it was a sign of disrespect, he instead took to kneeling.

At a political rally on Friday in support of his favored Senate candidate in a special election in Alabama, Mr. Trump suggested any protesting football player …. should lose his job.

The comments criticizing African-American athletes, who are taking a stand against institutional racism and inequality, stirred up Mr. Trump’s conservative base .

As the major sports community began to speak out against Mr. Trump’s comments on Sunday, including people he considers friends and allies, he took to Twitter again on Sunday afternoon.

“Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!” he wrote.

On Sunday morning, managers, coaches and owners began to weigh in on the feud, criticizing the president for calling out players’ political dissent.

A sports team owner, Robert Kraft, who has dined with President Trump and who the president considers a friend, criticized Mr. Trump and defended players’ right to protest.

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday,” Kraft said in a statement. Kraft said he supports his players’ “right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner they feel is most impactful.”

Sports team owner Shad Khan linked arms with team players in solidarity at a game in London’s Wembley Stadium. Khan donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration fund.

Commissioner Roger Goodell said Mr. Trump’s comments in Alabama revealed an “unfortunate lack of respect” for the sports organization and its players.

As commissioner, Goodell reports to owners, some of whom have supported Mr. Trump. An owner Woody Johnson, a major Trump presidential campaign donor, was confirmed by the Senate last month as Mr. Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Britain.

The union representing professional football players also rejected Mr. Trump’s comments, saying it would defend their right to freedom of expression.