U.S. President Donald Trump said Tuesday he thinks it is "disgraceful" that National Football League players are kneeling during the national anthem to protest racism in the country, and he called on the league to put a stop to it.
Trump said that standing during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," a tradition before the start of many amateur and virtually all professional athletic events in the U.S., is "called respect for our country."
Standing beside Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy at a White House news conference, Trump said of the protests at nationally televised football matches: "I was ashamed of what was taking place." He told reporters it is "very important" for the NFL to "not allow people to kneel during the playing of our national anthem, to respect our country and to respect our flag."
The president has said repeatedly he sees no racial issue in the protests, although the athletes involved have said they are trying to draw attention to what they see as unequal treatment of racial minorities in the U.S., and frequent instances of police brutality directed toward blacks. Trump also has said he thinks spectators should show their displeasure by booing football players who kneel in silence during the anthem.
At the prime-time Monday night pro-football game, a weekly fixture on national television, members of the Dallas Cowboys team, together with team owner Jerry Jones, linked arms and knelt on the field before their game with the Arizona Cardinals, then rose to stand — their arms still linked in a gesture of solidarity — as the anthem was sung.
Trump claimed the spectators booed loudly and showed "great anger" when the Cowboys joined the protest. He also claimed that lower television ratings, indicating a smaller audience for professional sports contests, also are a reaction against the protests.
How it started
Trump, who has highlighted his disdain for the football players' actions daily since last Friday, said "the only way out" for the football league "is to set a rule that you can't kneel" during the national anthem.
More than 200 NFL players and several team owners knelt or sat with interlocked arms at weekend games. The protests were more than 30 times as widespread as a week earlier, following Trump's call for the dismissal of athletes involved. Many players were particularly irked by the president's comment that any protester on the field was a "son of a bitch" who should be fired immediately.
The protests started last year when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the anthem to draw attention to racial discrimination in the U.S. Kaepernick's contract has not been picked by any professional team this year, and many sports reporters contend that team owners refused to consider adding him to their rosters due to the controversy surrounding his protest.
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' cause, and specifically backed their freedom to protest.
One of the NFL's top quarterbacks, Tom Brady of the New England Patriots, is known as a supporter of Trump. However, he told a radio interviewer Monday: "I certainly disagree with what [Trump] said [about NFL players]. I thought it was just divisive. ... I just want to support my teammates."
"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."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said Trump's comments were divisive and disrespectful to athletes who were trying to make a heartfelt statement.
VOA's Peter Heinlein contributed to this report.