Well over 100 players, coaches and owners throughout the National Football League defied U.S. President Donald Trump on Sunday by kneeling and linking arms in solidarity instead of standing when the national anthem was played at the beginning of their games.
The athletes said their protest is intended to draw attention to disparities in the treatment of racial minorities in the United States, including incidents of police brutality directed at African-Americans.
Trump has angrily denounced the protesters, and he repeated his disdain late Sunday, condemning the athletes for actions that he saw as "very disrespectful to our flag and to our country."
Watch: Trump's feud with athletes
To a reporter who asked if his own actions were inflaming racial tensions, Trump said: "No, this has nothing to do with race. I've never said anything about race."
Trump first raised the anthem issue at a political rally in Alabama on Friday night.
"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,'" Trump said. "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."
Trump also suggested sports fans might boycott pro football games, which are among the most popular U.S. sporting events. The president backed off his earlier comments slightly as he headed back to the White House following a weekend at his golf course in New Jersey.
Asked specifically whether he thought protesting athletes should be fired, Trump said, "Well, I think the [team] owners should do something about it," but did not elaborate.
Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League, which governs professional football in the U.S., said Trump's comments were divisive and disrespectful to athletes who were trying to make a heartfelt statement.
Asked to comment Sunday, Trump repeated his belief that those who knelt during the playing of the national anthem were "very disrespectful to our country ... very, very disrespectful to our flag."
Many athletes were bristling about the way in which Trump denounced the protests two days earlier during the Alabama rally.
Goodell's predecessor as NFL commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, said Trump's verbal assault was "disgraceful." Many athletes said they felt the president compounded his earlier unjustified insults by extending his disparaging comments to their families, and called for an apology.
Trump has not responded to those criticisms.
The football-field protests began last year as an individual action by an athlete who said he felt he had to make public his disapproval of the way in which racial minorities are treated in many parts of the U.S. The protests began to spread this year, and the salvo of tweets the president has fired off since Friday night have received wide publicity, and greatly swelled the numbers of players willing to speak out on the issue.
U.S. professional football games are mostly played on Sundays. The first game this week was in London, where the NFL is trying to build interest in American football. Many players, both black and white, knelt in protests when the music of "The Star Spangled Banner," the U.S. national anthem, was broadcast before play began between the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars.
All of the players stood when the British anthem, "God Save the Queen," resounded through the stadium, as is customary before an athletic contest.
Not only individual football stars, but other team officials and owners have joined the fray, and they are not siding with the president.
Robert Kraft, owner of the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, is a Trump supporter who donated $1 million to the president's inaugural committee earlier this year. He said he was "deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments" Trump made.
"I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities," said Kraft, who has visited with Trump at the White House. "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."
The owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, Shad Khan, was another $1 million donor to Trump's inaugural celebration in January. He linked arms with his players - some kneeling, some standing - at the game in London. The owner of the opposing team, Steve Bisciotti, voiced support for the Baltimore Ravens' players taking part in the protest.
One of the league's top coaches, Pete Carroll of the Seattle Seahawks, voiced support for the players, saying, "As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change. We can no longer remain silent. I will stand with our players."
One Republican lawmaker, Senator Ben Sasse, a Trump supporter, told the players they had the right to protest the president, but asked, "Aren’t there better ways than kneeling before the flag soldiers died to defend?" He added that "Trump wants you to kneel, because it divides the nation, with him and the flag on the same side. Don't give him the attention he wants."
Other team owners also weighed in favoring the players' stance. Members of the Pittsburgh Steelers avoided the on-field controversy by staying in their locker room until after the national anthem was played at their game in Chicago. At a game between the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons, a soloist who sang the national anthem sank to his knee during the last line of the national hymn - "he took a knee," in American football parlance - to show his support for the protests.
On Saturday Trump sparked another controversy when he revoked an invitation for one of the world's top basketball players, Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors, to visit the White House. The team had been planning a visit to Washington to celebrate its National Basketball Association championship, but Curry said he was unlikely to attend because of Trump's comments on the treatment of minorities.
"We don’t stand for basically what our president has – the things that he’s said and the things that he hasn’t said in the right times, that we won’t stand for it." Curry said.
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!"