As Trump escalates criticisms, NFL seeks to unite amid more anthem protests – Washington Post

NFL game day dawned Sunday with a powerful display of unity by the Baltimore Ravens’ and Jacksonville Jaguars’ players and coaches, who locked arms on the sideline of London’s Wembley Stadium — some kneeling, others standing — during the singing of the United States national anthem.

Their statement without words came in response to a three-day campaign by President Trump, who at 6:44 a.m. Sunday renewed his demand that NFL owners “fire or suspend” players who kneel during the national anthem in protest and called on fans to boycott games if the practice continued.

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!” Trump tweeted roughly three hours before kickoff of the NFL’s first game of the day, staged in London at part of the league’s effort to extend its fan base over season.

Roughly 30 minutes later, at 7:13 a.m., Trump continued in a second tweet: “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

[Live updates: Jaguars owner joins arms with players during national anthem in London]

Trump started his crusade against protesting NFL players during a campaign-style rally in Alabama Friday night. In his remarks, he made a thinly veiled allusion to former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, whose decision last season to take a knee to draw attention to police violence against minorities initiated the practice and debate. Trump called on coaches to get the “son of a b—“ players off the field if they continued to kneel.

Those remarks, which the president reiterated via social media over the weekend and continued Sunday morning, triggered reactions from many on the rosters, coaching staffs and front offices of the NFL’s 32 teams.

While far from universally in favor of the form of protest Kaepernick chose, a succession of NFL owners, players and coaches Saturday and into Sunday issues statements defending the rights of players — and all Americans — to express themselves on matters they are passionate about.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the NFLPA’s executive director, each issued statements on behalf of their respective organizations. The two also spoke Saturday about President Trump’s comments but didn’t coordinate a response, according to one person close to the situation. A person on the players’ side said any on-field responses Sunday likely would be the result of team-by-team decisions, rather than an orchestrated league-wide effort.

The Ravens-Jaguars display reflected just that: players and coaches choosing whether to stand or knee, yet bound by linked arms.

As of Sunday morning, nearly half the NFL’s 32 owners had issued a statement. Among the more notable was New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a staunch and vocal Trump supporter, as well as a $1 million donor to his inaugural, who wrote that he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday.”

“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,’ Kraft wrote in his statement. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. 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.”

[Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and other NFL players weigh in on national anthem protests]

Other NFL teams whose owners or CEOs voiced their support of players’ free expression included the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, Green Bay Packers, San Diego Chargers, Atlanta Falcons, San Francisco 49ers, Tennessee Titans, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Indianapolis Colts and Seattle Seahawks.

Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, among eight NFL owners who are significant Trump donors, had no comment “at this time,” according to a team spokesman.

In closed-door meetings around the NFL, many players and coaches discussed whether and how to respond as the national anthem played before Sunday’s kickoffs.

Pittsburgh Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin said in an interview Sunday morning that all his players would remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem before their game in Chicago “not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from the circumstance.

“People shouldn’t have to choose,” Tomlin said. “If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn’t have to be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn’t be separated from his teammate who chooses not to. So we’re not participating today. That’s our decision.”

Redskins players held no such discussions, according to a person in the organization, speaking on condition of anonymity given the sensitive nature of the topic. He characterized the Redskins’ locker room as lacking in strong voices who care deeply about social issues.

According to Ian Rapoport of, the offensive line of the Oakland Raiders, who’ll face the Redskins at FedEx Field in the nationally televised Sunday night game, intends to sit or kneel during the anthem.

On ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Trump’s comments about NFL players demonstrating during the national anthem.

“This is about respect for the military, the first responders,” he said. Mnuchin also declined to criticize the coarse language Trump used, saying, “I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”

Of the players, Mnuchin said: “They have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job.”

Another White House official, Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press” that Trump is standing with the “vast majority” of Americans who believe the flag “should be respected.”

He added that Trump plans to take more action on improving race relations.

“The president believes it is his role to improve race relations,” Short said.

Seattle’s Pete Carroll was the first NFL head coach to issue a statement about the matter, posting on Facebook and Twitter that “there’s no longer a place to sit silently. It’s time to take a stand.”

Carroll’s statement followed those of Seattle owner Paul Allen and cornerback Richard Sherman.

Wrote Carroll:“We stand for love and justice and civility. We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people. We stand against divisiveness and hate and dehumanization. We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging time, a time longing for healing. Change needs to happen; we will stand for change. May we all have the courage to take a stand for our beliefs while not diminishing the rights of others, as this is the beating heart of our democracy. As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change. We can longer remain silent.”

Mark Maske and Cindy Boren contributed to this report.

Read more coverage:

Sally Jenkins: NFL shows restraint in the face of vulgarity — and gets it right

The Fix: Trump’s culture war with the NFL is getting very real

‘Surreal’: Curry, Warriors have plenty to say about not visiting the White House

First baseball player joins protest: ‘To single out NFL players for doing this isn’t something we should be doing’

Perspective: Why is Kaepernick taking a knee different from when Tebow does it?

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