The owner of the New England Patriots NFL franchise, Robert Kraft, expressed his disappointment with a statement that President Donald Trump made on Friday. At a political rally in Alabama in support of an incumbent Republican senator, Luther Strange, Trump called on team owners to fire players who protest during the playing of the National Anthem. Trump implored NFL owners to "get that son of a bitch off the field." NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL players association also condemned Trump. The controversy inspired a storm of comment on social media. 

Kraft released the following statement:

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday. I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities. Their efforts, both on and off the field, 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. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”

Kraft has been heretofore a supporter of the president, having donating $1 million to Trump’s celebration of the inauguration. 

On Sunday, NFL players with the support of team owners knelt in silent protest. Other players, including the great Tom Brady of the Patriots, stood instead and locked arms. Brady put his hand on his heart, while Patriots coach Bill Belichick opted to stand with his arms crossed. The Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks opted to stay in their respective locker rooms before their Sunday game in Nashville. In advance of the game, the Titans released a statement, which read: “As a team, we have decided we will not participate in the national anthem. We will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country. Out of love for our country and in honor of the sacrifices made on our behalf, we unite to oppose those that would deny our most basic freedoms. We remain committed in continuing to work towards equality and justice for all.”

Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers explained why his team bench was empty during the playing of the National Anthem. “We’re not going to play politics,” Coach Mike Tomlin told CBS before the game. “We’re football players, we’re football coaches. We’re not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but 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 have to 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. So we’re not participating today.”

Tomlin was visible on the sidelines during the playing of the National Anthem, standing at midfield while keeping his hands behind his back. Alejandro Villanueva, a Steelers offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva and US Army captain, stood the tunnel entrance with his hand over his heart during the ceremony.

US Army Capt. Alejandro Villanueva

Reporters confronted the president upon his return to Andrews AFB after spending time in New Jersey. Trump said, “We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers, our first responders, and they should be treated with respect, and when you get on your knee, and you don’t respect the American flag or the anthem, that’s not being treated with respect.” When a reporter asked if his statements had something to do with race, he responded, “This has nothing to do with race. This has nothing to do with race. I’ve 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."

The protests against the National Anthem started during the 2016 preseason, when Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers first sat out the National Anthem and then took to a knee during the Obama administration in protest against police shootings of black civilians. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL Media then. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.” He was nowhere to be seen on Sunday. 

On Sunday afternoon, Trump again addressed the issue of the NFL and the National Anthem. He tweeted: “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

Among Republicans who showed solidarity with Trump’s sentiments was Rep. Steve King of Iowa. King tweeted, “Pro-Players have the right to freedom of speech. Owners do, too. And should exercise it by firing offending players.” Conservative author and moviemaker Dinesh D’Souza commented on Twitter, “It's time to loudly boo teams & players who refuse to respect the national anthem--we too can exercise our right to protest.” Fox News contributor and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee said in a Sunday broadcast, “I wish that some of these players who get on one knee would get on both knees and thank God they live in the United States.”

Fox Sports contributor Clay Travis tweeted “Sports media’s outraged over Trump NFL anthem comments. Yet vast majority of fans agree. Huge disconnect in sports between fans/media.” At a home game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, spectators booed loudly when members of the Cleveland Browns kneeled during the National Anthem. The Colts locked armed arms instead. Owner Jeffrey Lurie and players of the Philadelphia Eagles locked arms during the National Anthem before taking on the New York Giants. 

In London, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shahid Khan, linked his arms with players Telvin Smith and Marcedes Lewis, both of whom are black Americans, purportedly to show solidarity with his players. Khan is a Muslim. Members of the Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens kneeled in London’s Wembley Stadium. 

Khan, born in Pakistan, has been an outspoken critics of Trump’s immigration policies.Owners of the Bills, Dolphins, Falcons, Giants, Lions, and Rams issued statements condemning Trump’s comments. However, many other owners, including Woody Johnson of the Jets and Jerry Jones of the Cowboys, were silent on the issue.

Also on Sunday, Trump retweeted a message that called for boycotting the NFL in the wake of players taking a knee during the National Anthem across the league. The message read:  “You can boycott our anthem WE CAN BOYCOTT YOU!” the message read, featuring an NFL logo with the word “boycott” superimposed.

 

Trump tweeted: "Courageous Patriots have fought and died for our great American Flag --- we MUST honor and respect it! MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!" The president also tweeted a message from Donna Warren, the woman who originated the boycott message. Warren's message featured a US Marine amputee in uniform. That tweet read: “I wonder what this BRAVE American would give to stand on his OWN two legs just ONCE MORE for our #Anthem?” the tweet read.

 


 



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Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat and the editor of Spero News.

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