U.S. President Donald Trump contended Monday that professional football players' refusal to stand for the country's national anthem has "nothing to do with race," even though many of the athletes themselves said it was meant to protest racism and police brutality against minorities in the United States.
Hundreds of players, coaches and team owners defied Trump on Sunday by sitting, kneeling and locking arms as the "Star Spangled Banner" was played before the start of 14 games, rather than displaying the traditional hand-over-heart support for the flag and country.
In recent days, Trump had called on National Football League owners to fire the players, most of them black, who refused to stand for the playing of the national anthem, a tradition at most amateur and professional athletic events in the U.S., and suggested fans boycott the widely popular NFL games, a fixture of fall Sundays in the country.
"The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race," Trump said in a Twitter comment. "It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!"
The U.S. leader added, "Many people booed the players who kneeled yesterday (which was a small percentage of total). These are fans who demand respect for our Flag!"
Numerous NFL team owners, at least two of whom had contributed $1 million apiece to Trump's inaugural celebration in January, issued statements in support of the players' protest, not Trump's call to fire them, and some linked arms with their players on the field while the anthem was played.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump believes it is important to "support national pride in our country. ... I know it's a priority for the president to always defend our flag, always defend the national anthem and certainly to support the men and women in uniform."
One of the NFL's top quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, told a radio interviewer Monday, "I certainly disagree with what [Trump] said. I thought it was just divisive... Like I said, I just want to support my teammates. I am never one to say, 'Oh, that is wrong. That is right.' I do believe in what I believe in. I believe in bringing people together and respect and love and trust. Those are the values that my parents instilled in me."
Trump had disparaged the players' protests for three straight days, saying at one political rally, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired,' Wouldn't you love it? Some owner's going to do that. He's going to say, 'That guy who disrespects our flag, he's fired.' And that owner ... — they're friends of mine, many of them — they'll be the most popular person for a week in this country."
'There is inequality out there'
The players who joined the protest said they did so to draw attention to disparities in the treatment of racial minorities in the United States, including incidents of police brutality directed at African-Americans.
"There is inequality out there," said Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman. "There isn't liberty and justice for all, and I think guys for a while, at least a year now, have been protesting that by taking a knee, sitting down, putting up the fist ... but their voices were watered down."
The protests started last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the anthem as a protest of police treatment of minorities. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.
A smaller number of other NFL players had also taken up the kneeling protest before Sunday, as did players from the Women's National Basketball Association, a player for the U.S. women's national soccer team, and on Saturday a Major League Baseball player. But Sunday marked a massive expansion following fresh criticism from Trump.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Trump's comments were divisive and disrespectful to athletes who were trying to make a heartfelt statement.
At NFL stadiums Sunday, some fans booed or yelled at players to stand during the anthem, while others greeted the protests with applause. Social media showed a similar mix of reactions.
The demonstrations took on different forms, representing the various stances held throughout the league. Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander was among those who took a knee during the anthem Sunday, but said he would return to standing for the next game.
"Me taking a knee doesn't change the fact that I support our military, I'm a patriot and I love my country,'' Alexander said. "But I also recognize there are some social injustices in this country and today I wanted to take a knee in support of my brothers who have been doing it."
The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans did not come onto the field during the playing of the national ceremony. The Pittsburgh Steelers remained just off the field during the anthem except for one player, Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside with a hand over his heart.
Villanueva did not speak to reporters after the game, but he clarified Monday that it was not his intention to stand apart from his team. He said the plan was to be with the Steelers captains at the front of the team but still inside the tunnel. Before the anthem began, he walked out far enough to see the flag, only to have the song start while he was still out there. He said he felt it would look bad if he turned away and walked into the tunnel at that point, so he remained in place.
"It's a very embarrassing part on my end," Villanueva said. "When everyone sees images of me standing by myself, everybody thinks the team and the Steelers are not behind me and that is absolutely wrong. It's quite the opposite."
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, one of the $1 million Trump inauguration donors, said he was "deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments" Trump made.
Trump's tirades against the NFL players came as he disinvited National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry to visit the White House to celebrate along with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Curry had said he was unlikely to attend because of Trump's comments on the treatment of minorities.
After Trump denounced Curry, another NBA superstar, LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, spoke out in support of Curry. James called Trump "a bum" online, and said: "Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!"