Hundreds of 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.

"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. 

From left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker
From left, San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold, quarterback Colin Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Dallas Cowboys in Santa Clara, California, Oct. 2, 2016.

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.

Trump’s controversial comments

"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 Friday. "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.  On Sunday, when 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."

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."

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said there is no dividing the players.

"To protest, non-violent protest, is as American as it gets. So we knelt with them today to let them know that we're a unified front."

Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett remains seated o
Seattle Seahawks' Michael Bennett remains seated on the bench during the national anthem before an NFL game against the Green Bay Packers, Sept. 10, 2017, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

The Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans did not come onto the field during the anthem 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 last year expressed opposition to Kaepernick's protest.

"I agree that America is not perfect.  I agree there are a lot of issues with minorities in this country.  I agree we should do something about it," Villanueva said.  But he said he does not know if the most effective solution is to sit down during the anthem of the country that provides the players freedom and millions of dollars a year when there are minorities "dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and protecting our freedom for less than $20,000 a year."

In London, where the Jacksonville Jaguars played the Baltimore Ravens, all of the players stood during the British anthem, but many players knelt during the U.S. anthem.

NFL owners get involved

Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural celebration, linked arms with his players. Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti voiced support for his team's players who took part in the protest.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, another $1 million Trump donor, 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."

One Republican lawmaker, Sen. Ben Sasse, a Trump supporter, said the players 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."

Pittsburgh's professional hockey team, the Penguins, announced Sunday it accepted an invitation to visit the White House to honor its Stanley Cup championship.

That came a day after Trump revoked an invitation for 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.

"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!"