As Trump’s opponents and allies publicly sparred over First Amendment rights and the reopening of racial wounds, football became the latest unwilling participant in the nation’s culture wars.
Sunday’s protests illustrated Trump’s gift — or curse, depending on one’s viewpoint — for generating an argument, putting himself at the center of it and forcing others to respond.
Protests during the national anthem to draw attention to racism and social injustice, which began during the summer of 2016 with then-San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick, had slowed to a trickle this season. Trump reignited them with inflammatory comments Friday at a political rally before a nearly all-white crowd in Alabama in which he challenged NFL owners to fire players who refuse to stand for the anthem. Most of the players who have done so are black.
He amplified the furor Saturday on Twitter by criticizing other black athletes, including Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, and revoked the NBA champion team’s invitation to the White House.
On Sunday, even team owners who donated millions of dollars to Trump’s presidential run publicly rejected his comments.
“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president,” said New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close friend of Trump who contributed $1 million to his inauguration.
A short time later, NFL players provided their first physical response with the 9:30 a.m. EDT kickoff of the Baltimore-Jacksonville game at Wembley Stadium in London. Players on both teams either knelt or locked arms in solidarity.
In that human chain on the Jaguars’ sideline was team owner Shad Khan, who had also donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration.
Similar displays marked games throughout the day.
In Carson, where the Los Angeles Chargers were playing host to the Kansas City Chiefs, three Chargers sat on the bench and three more knelt during the anthem. There were a few catcalls of “Stand up!” from the crowd. The rest of the team had linked arms, including team Chairman Dean Spanos.
Across the field, at least 10 members of the Chiefs were either sitting or kneeling, among them linebacker Justin Houston, who was kneeling on the bench with his back to the field.
Late in the day, preparing to return to Washington from a weekend at his golf resort in Bedminster, N.J., Trump said to reporters that his remarks had “nothing to do with race.”
“I never said anything about race. This has nothing to do with race or anything else. This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag,” he said.
In the brief exchange with reporters and in a tweet earlier in the afternoon, he also seemed to leave himself room to back away from a fight that had left him isolated from his prominent supporters in the NFL and elected officials, saying that the players had shown “great solidarity.”
“Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!” he declared on Twitter.
Earlier, also on Twitter, he had said: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
Although Trump retweeted an encouragement to boycott the NFL, he told reporters he would not call on his supporters to do so. “They can do whatever they want,” he said.
Whether the national anthem protests have had a significant impact on the NFL’s ratings is a hotly debated topic for which the evidence on either side is slight. Several factors may have hurt ratings last season, including concern over widespread concussions suffered by NFL players.
The NFL owners’ stance toward Trump was reminiscent of several prominent business leaders resigning from White House advisory councils to distance themselves from Trump’s response to a July white-supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.
The president drew widespread criticism when he said that others besides extremist hate groups bore responsibility for violence surrounding the march, which led to the death of a counterprotester. He also said that some “good people” were among those marching with the white supremacists.
The players had little to lose by this display, especially since they had the support of most of their owners and Commissioner Roger Goodell, who called the president’s words “divisive.”
For many, the day’s protests were more about Trump’s comments than the national anthem or racial divide.
“I can’t stand and support something where our leader of this country is just acting like a jerk,” said Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy.
Devin McCourty, a defensive back with the Patriots, added: “We hate that people are going to see it as that we don’t respect the military and the men and women that are way braver than us that go and put their life on the line every day for us. … But, we just wanted to send a message of unity and being together and not standing for the disrespect and different ways guys felt.”
In an effort to present a united front on the issue, the NFL revived a one-minute ad it produced for the Super Bowl and originally made to “demonstrate the power of football to bring people together.”
It was scheduled to air in prime time Sunday night.
Trump’s attack has become an issue for other sports, which must now figure out how to deal with athletes who may want to make a symbolic protest.
Bruce Maxwell, a rookie catcher for the Oakland A’s and the son of an Army veteran, took a knee Saturday during the anthem in Oakland. Teammate Mark Canha stood behind Maxwell, placing his right hand on Maxwell’s right shoulder in a show of solidarity.
Trump had surrogates working the Sunday morning political talk shows to back his message, but few who were not on the administration payroll appeared to take up the cudgels for him.
Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, appearing on ABC’s “This Week,” declared that NFL players were welcome to express political opinions — off the field.
“They can do free speech on their own time,” he said.
Mnuchin’s comments then drew a sharp response from Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who said on Twitter that the Treasury secretary did not seem to understand 1st Amendment protections.
“I am beginning to think that in govt, you are stupid as a rock,” Lieu said on his personal Twitter account. “US Constitution also applies to NFL players. Get it?”
Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, tried to cast the protests as unpatriotic.
Trump, he said, was “making the case that … there are generations of Americans who have fought and died to protect our freedoms, and fought and died for the red on the flag that represents the blood that’s been sacrificed by so many Americans,” Short said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
On social media, views on anthem-kneeling became the latest litmus test of support or opposition to Trump’s presidency. The hashtag #TakeTheKnee trended, with Trump backers praising the president for plain-speaking forthrightness and critics calling it further proof of deep-rooted racism among his base of support.
(Farmer reported from Carson, King from Washington. Times staff writers Kevin Baxter and Eric Sondheimer in Los Angeles contributed to this report.)
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