President Donald Trump took a break Sunday morning from calling North Korea’s nuclear-powered leader Little Rocket Man and continued his assault on the NFL.
Tripling down on his rhetoric — that started at a Friday rally preaching to his base in Alabama and continued with a Twitter war with NBA superstar LeBron James on Saturday — Trump called out NFL players, owners and commissioner Roger Goodell. Trump tweeted “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!”
That tweeted was later followed by this one: “…NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
Expect players around the league — in the NFL and possibly Major League Baseball — to mirror what happened in London early this morning.
At Soldier Field, the Steelers will stay in their locker room at Soldier Field on Sunday rather than take the field for the national anthem, coach Mike Tomlin told CBS.
The Bears, meanwhile, released a statement, one day after saying they would defer to commissioner Roger Goodell.
“The Chicago Bears are proud to support our players, coaches and all members of our organization to bring peace and unity together through football,” the Bears wrote. “What makes this the greatest country in the world are the liberties it was founded upon and the freedom to express oneself in a respectful and peaceful manner. Through important dialogue with our players and team, this divisive political situation has unified our franchise for the present and the future.”
Goodell Tweeted that the NFL will air a commercial Sunday night touting diversity and unity.
Before an NFL game at Wembley Stadium, about two dozen players from the the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars kneeled during the American national anthem. Players on both teams who were not kneeling — joined by Jaguars owners Shad Khan — locked arms in a clear show of unity. It was also a clear show of resistance to Trump.
Trump applauded players for locking arms — as the Bears and several other teams did — in a midday tweet, saying: “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”
It’s worth noting no players kneeled during “God Save The Queen,” Britain’s national anthem. But the players, and Khan, remained locked in arms.
Last week across the entire NFL, only four players knelt or sat, and two stood with their fists raised. In the nine early games Sunday, AP reporters counted 102 players kneeling or sitting, and at least three raising their fists.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first athlete to refuse to stand during the national anthem as a protest to police treatment of minorities last year. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.
That protest movement ballooned Sunday following Trump’s weekend rant that began with him calling for NFL protesters to be fired. It continued Saturday with the president rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who had said they were considering not attending.
By Sunday, it was one of the main topics of conversation on social media and around the country.
In Charlotte, North Carolina, more than a dozen New Orleans Saints players sat during the anthem, including star running back Adrian Peterson. In Buffalo, New York, more than half the Denver Broncos knelt during the anthem and a handful of Buffalo Bills sat or knelt.
In Minneapolis, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson knelt with the rest of the team locking arms during the “Star Spangled Banner.” The Minnesota Vikings also locked arms. Although no Vikings were spotted taking a knee during the anthem, at least a dozen players sprinted into one end zone and took a knee with head bowed, before the crowd was asked to stand.
On Sunday, NFL owners continued issuing statements condemning the president’s divisive words and players took part in displays of unity across the league. The Pittsburgh Steelers decided to stay in their locker room for the national anthem before their game against the Chicago Bears.
Sports hasn’t been immune from America’s deep political rifts, but the president’s delving into the NFL protests started by Kaepernick brought new attention.
After the Warriors White House invite was rescinded, the National Hockey League’s reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins announced they did accept a White House invitation from Trump.
In a statement released Sunday morning, the Penguins said they respect the office of the president and “the long tradition of championship team visiting the White House.” The Penguins were honored by Barack Obama after winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and previously by George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s.
Wading into thorny issues of race and politics, Trump’s comments in a Friday night speech in Huntsville, Alabama, and a series of Saturday tweets drew sharp responses from some of the nation’s top athletes, with LeBron James calling the president a “bum.” Hours later, Major League Baseball saw its first player take a knee during the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,'” Trump said to loud applause Friday night at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama, comments he kept echoing over the next two days.
“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 said in a Sunday morning tweet.
Trump also mocked the league’s crackdown on illegal hits, suggesting the league had softened because of its safety initiatives, which stem from an increased awareness of the devastating effects of repeated hits to the head.
The league and its players, often at odds, have been united in condemning the president’s criticisms, with commissioner Roger Goodell saying Saturday that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Trump’s attacks Sunday, saying on ABC’s “This Week” that the president thinks “owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem.” Mnuchin added that “they can do free speech on their own time.”
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who’s been a strong supporter of the president, expressed “deep disappointment” with Trump on Sunday.