President Trump directed full-throated ire toward professional sports players during a speech Friday and in subsequent tweets afterwards. He was at a political rally in Huntsville, Alabama campaigning for Sen. Luther Strange when he made the comments. Strange is running in a special GOP primary election to continue holding the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The president targeted African American athletes who have spoken out against him, the National Football League and its players, and one of the world’s top basketball players.
The president called on NFL owners to release players who kneeled or made other demonstrations during the national anthem. During the speech, Trump said, “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!’ You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
In a tweet Saturday afternoon, Trump doubled down, writing, “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!” At the Huntsville rally, he also called for fans to boycott the NFL in the face of player anthem protests and complained about rules penalizing dangerous hits.
Some are saying that his comments are setting the stage for a potential mass protest Sunday along the sidelines of NFL games. The president did not specifically call out former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the trend of kneeling during the national anthem last season to draw attention to police violence against African Americans. Kaepernick remains unsigned for the current football season and many believe that his protests are the reason why.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded to the president in a Saturday morning statement, stating, “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, also responded, saying, “The union . . . will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”
On Twitter Saturday morning, Trump rescinded a White House visit invitation to Stephen Curry of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Curry, the star of the NBA champion Warriors, said he would vote against going when the Warriors voted as a team whether to attend the White House, as is tradition for champions from all sports. The tweet read, “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Many New England Patriots skipped the White House visit after winning January’s Super Bowl.