President's criticisms spark more protests at NFL games

Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts players kneel during the playing of the National Anthem before the game against the Cleveland Browns at Lucas Oil Stadium. Photo by Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports/Reuters

President Donald Trump's comments about owners firing players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a mass increase in such protests around the National Football League Sunday, as about 150 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance during early games.

A week ago, just six players protested.

As he prepared to board Air Force One to return to Washington from New Jersey on Sunday, Trump said the players protesting the anthem were "very disrespectful to our country" and called again on owners to stop what he considers unpatriotic displays in America's most popular sport.

"This has nothing to do with race," Trump said. "This has to do with respect for our country."

The NFL and its players, often at odds, have been united in condemning the president's criticisms. One of Trump's biggest supporters in the NFL, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, joined the chorus of criticism of the president when he expressed "deep disappointment" with Trump.

"I like Bob very much. He's my friend. He gave me a Super Bowl ring a month ago. So he's a good friend of mine and I want him to do what he wants to do," Trump said. "We have a great country. We have great people representing our country, especially our soldiers our first responders and they should be treated with respect.

"And when you get on your knee and you don't respect the American flag or the anthem."

Defensive star Von Miller was among the majority of Denver Broncos who took a knee in Buffalo Sunday, where Bills running back LeSean McCoy stretched during the "Star Spangled Banner."

"I felt like it was an attack on us," Miller, who normally steers clear of politics and social issues, said of Trump's comments.

Sep 24, 2017; London, United Kingdom; Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel during the playing of the United Sates national anthem before a NFL International Series game against the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In Chicago, the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the tunnel except for one player, Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside with a hand over his heart. Both the Seahawks and Titans stayed inside until after the national anthem was over in Nashville, a throwback to the pre-2009 NFL when teams, not the league, set pre-game policy regarding players standing on the sideline for the anthem.

A handful of NFL players have refused to stand during the anthem to protest several issues, including police brutality. But that number ballooned Sunday following Trump's two-day weekend rant that began with the president calling for NFL protesters to be fired and continued Saturday with the president rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors over star Stephen Curry's criticism of Trump.

Tom Brady was among the New England Patriots who locked arms in solidarity in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Aaron Rodgers did the same with his teammates in Green Bay.

The president's comments Friday night and Saturday turned the anthems — usually sung during commercials — into must-watch television shown live by the networks and Yahoo!, which streamed the game in London. In some NFL stadiums, crowds booed or yelled at players to stand. There was also some applause.

NFL players, coaches, owners and executives used the anthems to show solidarity in their defiance to Trump's criticism.

San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Eli Harold (58), quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) and free safety Eric Reid (35) kneel in protest during the playing of the national anthem before a NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals in Santa Clara, California, on Oct. 6, 2016. Photo by Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In Detroit, anthem singer Rico Lavelle took a knee at the word "brave," lowering his head and raising his right fist into the air. In Nashville, anthem singer Meghan Linsey, took a knee as she finished singing.

Jets Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, whose brother, Woody, is the ambassador to England and one of Trump's most ardent supporters, called it "an honor and a privilege to stand arm-in-arm unified with our players during today's national anthem" in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The issue reverberated across the Atlantic, where about two dozen players took a knee during the playing of the U.S. anthem at Wembley Stadium.

"We stand with our brothers," Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. "They have the right and we knelt with them today. 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."

Jaguars owner Shad Khan and players on both teams who were not kneeling remained locked arm-in-arm throughout the playing of the anthem and "God Save The Queen." No players knelt during the British anthem.

"Me taking a knee doesn't change the fact that I support our military, I'm a patriot and I love my country," Bills linebacker Lorenzo 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 movement started more than a year ago when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest of police treatment of racial minorities. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.

A handful of Miami Dolphins players wore black T-shirts supporting Kaepernick during pregame warm-ups. The shirts have "#IMWITHKAP" written in bold white lettering on the front.

Trump's targeting of top professional athletes in football and basketball brought swift condemnation from executives and players in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.

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The National Hockey League's reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins announced Sunday they've accepted a White House invitation from Trump. The Penguins said they respect the office of the president and "the long tradition of championship team visiting the White House."

"Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways," the Penguins said. "However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit."

Before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis on Sunday, the Los Angeles Sparks left the floor while the Minnesota Lynx stood arm-in-arm. The Sparks returned to a chorus of boos when the song was finished.

Sports hasn't been immune from America's deep political rifts, but the president's delving into the NFL protests started by Kaepernick brought new attention to the issues.

Sep 24, 2017; Indianapolis, IN, USA; The Cleveland Browns team stand and kneel during the National Anthem before the start of their game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium. Photo by Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired,'" Trump said to loud applause Friday night at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.

Trump also mocked the league's crackdown on illegal hits, suggesting the league had softened because of its safety initiatives.

Kahn, who was among the NFL owners who chipped in $1 million to the Trump inauguration committee, said he met with his team captains before kickoff in London "to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump."

Trump's comments drew sharp responses from some of the nation's top athletes, with LeBron James calling the president a "bum." Hours later, Major League Baseball saw its first player take a knee during the national anthem.

Among the strongest criticisms of the president Sunday was this from Saints coach Sean Payton: "I'm disappointed in the comments that were made. I think we need a little bit more wisdom in that office. … I want that guy to be one of the smarter guys in the room and it seems like every time he's opening up his mouth it's something that is dividing our country and not pulling us together.

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