President Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into an already fiery debate over race, social justice and the role athletes have played in highlighting those issues.
In a speech and a series of tweets, he urged N.F.L. owners to fire players who do not stand for the national anthem, suggested the league is declining because it is not as violent as it once was and seemed to disinvite the N.B.A. champion Golden State Warriors from the traditional White House visit, over their star player Stephen Curry’s public opposition to him.
Speaking in Huntsville, Ala., on Friday, the president used an expletive to describe players who kneel or sit during the anthem to protest police brutality against black Americans and other forms of social injustice.
On Friday night, Mr. Trump said: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these N.F.L. owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired,’ ” the president said at a rally for Senator Luther Strange, who was appointed to the Senate this year and is facing Roy Moore in a Republican primary runoff.
While many fans on social media were supportive of the president, the reaction from many athletes was immediate and impassioned, particularly among African-American football and basketball players who have criticized Mr. Trump on race. Many, including LeBron James, among the best-known athletes in the country, denounced the president.
“U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” Mr. James wrote on Twitter, where he has nearly twice as many followers as the president.
Mr. Trump also drew an unusually strong rebuke from the commissioner of the N.F.L., whose owners include many donors to, and friends of, the president, as well as from the football players’ union.
The Warriors, in a statement, said they would use a visit to Washington in February to highlight issues of diversity and inclusiveness.
By midafternoon, a spokesman for the University of North Carolina national championship basketball team confirmed the team would not be going to the White House, but he said it was a scheduling conflict, not a response to the day’s back-and-forth.
Many athletes have been moved to comment on race and social justice more frequently in the past year after a series of police shootings of unarmed African-Americans and the support Mr. Trump has received from white supremacists.
Last year, Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem, to highlight, he has said, police brutality and racial injustice. He left the team this season and has not worked since, inspiring debate over whether teams are punishing him, while many players have knelt or made gestures in support of him during the anthem.
At the same time, some owners of N.F.L. teams have suggested players should not take part in political demonstrations during the game. None appeared to speak up for Mr. Trump on Saturday, though, with the exception or two by left-leaning owners, they did not criticize him either.
Mr. Trump’s outbursts against athletes and their leagues came as he was smarting from yet another setback in his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and as he worked to stoke enthusiasm among his core supporters in the deeply conservative state of Alabama, where he attended a campaign rally for Mr. Strange, who many of them regard as an establishment Republican unworthy of their backing.
The president often uses freewheeling campaign speeches and Twitter to berate and insult critics in unvarnished language and to whip up core supporters. In the past week, he branded North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, as Rocket Man and criticized Senator John McCain of Arizona for opposing Republican attempts to dismantle the health care law.
But Mr. Trump’s broadsides this time focused on some of the most prominent African-American athletes in the country, who have international followings and have called out the president for his lack of tolerance and divisive views on race.
They come about a week after the president called on ESPN to apologize after Jemele Hill, one of the sports network’s anchors, who is black, referred to him on Twitter as a “white supremacist” and a “bigot.” Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said Ms. Hill’s utterances were a firing offense.
The denial of a visit to the White House by the Warriors was not the first time the president tried to pre-empt a snub by dealing one of his own; last month, he abruptly announced that he was disbanding two of his business advisory councils after some members said they would resign from them to protest his equivocating response to racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va., at a march organized by neo-Nazis and white supremacists.
At the Alabama rally, Mr. Trump said the protests would stop if fans left games when players did not stand for the anthem. “The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium,” he said.
With the N.F.L. struggling to make the game safer in light of scores of players who have been found to have severe brain damage from hard hits, Mr. Trump complained that the game was being ruined by referees trying to control unnecessarily rough tackles.
“Today if you hit too hard — 15 yards! Throw him out of the game!’’ he said, adding: “They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.’’
In an unusually strong rebuke of the president on Saturday, Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the N.F.L., said the president failed to understand how the league and its players work together to “create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”
“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the N.F.L., 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,” he said in a statement.
Mr. Goodell, who leads a league in which about three-quarters of the players are black while about the same percentage of fans are white, has tried to find a middle ground between the players and his bosses, the owners of the league’s 32 teams.
More than half a dozen owners contributed to Mr. Trump’s inauguration, and many of them donate heavily to conservative causes. Some owners, including Robert K. Kraft of the New England Patriots, consider Mr. Trump a personal friend.
Coincidentally, the owners are now discussing whether to renew Mr. Goodell’s contract, which expires in 2019.
Even before the president’s remarks, the league has been trying to weave its way through an often fierce and uncomfortable debate inside the N.F.L. and among fans about whether the anthem protests disrespect the military and country or are simply an effective way to publicize issues players want to highlight.
Mr. Trump has a history of antagonizing the N.F.L., dating to the 1980s, when he and the fledgling United States Football League successfully sued it for antitrust violations. Though Mr. Trump won in court, his efforts bankrupted the U.S.F.L. His name surfaced in 2014 as a potential buyer for the Buffalo Bills.
The president’s comments seemed to embolden players. Detroit Lions tight end Eric Ebron questioned why players were told not to talk about politics, yet the president could speak about sports. “Does anyone tell trump to stick to politics, like they tell us to stick to sports?” he wrote. He added “smh” for “shaking my head.”
Michael Thomas, a defensive back with the Miami Dolphins, urged fellow players not to back down. “Continue to use your voices and your platforms for racial equality and to stop injustices in our communities,” he wrote on Twitter. “This is bigger than us!!!”
President Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into an already fiery debate about race, social justice and the role athletes play in highlighting those issues.
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