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Trump blasts NFL anthem protests

Washington Post

September 23. 2017 9:09PM
Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry 

President Donald Trump turned professional sports into a political battleground Friday night into Saturday, directing full-throated ire toward African American athletes who have spoken out against him and prompting a sharp rebuttal from the National Football League and the two most prominent basketball players in the world.

In a span of roughly 12 hours, as the sports world would typically be gearing up for college football and baseball's pennant races, Trump ensnared and agitated the most powerful sports league in North America and angered NBA superstars Stephen Curry and LeBron James. His comments set the stage for potential mass protest today along NFL sidelines.

At a political rally Friday in Huntsville, Ala., Trump called on NFL owners to release players who demonstrated during the national anthem in the manner of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt last season to draw attention to police violence against African-Americans. Saturday morning on Twitter, Trump rescinded a White House visit invitation to Stephen Curry of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, although it is unclear whether the Warriors had been invited in the first place.

"Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" Trump posted at 7:45 a.m. Saturday.

The tweet came on the heels of comments he made Friday night at a rally for Republican Sen. Luther Strange, who is running in a special GOP primary election to remain in the seat vacated by Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

"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. "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."

Saturday afternoon, Trump doubled down on Twitter.

"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," Trump wrote. "If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!"

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who has waffled from either supporting to decrying Kaepernick, responded to Trump in a statement released Saturday morning.

"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," Goodell said.

NFL owners collectively donated more than $7 million to Trump's presidential campaign, and New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft gave Trump a Super Bowl ring this summer. Saturday, a Patriots spokesman did not respond to a request for comment from Kraft.

The only Patriots player to respond by Saturday afternoon was safety Devin McCourty, who did not accompany teammates to the White House after last season's Super Bowl win. "(People) said it was disrespectful not going to the White House. I'm sure they are quiet about us being called 'sons of bitches,'" he wrote on Twitter.

Facing his first major test on issues of race, Trump fumbled. After a group of white supremacists and neo-Nazis descended upon Charlottesville, Va., to rally in favor of preserving Confederate monuments, Trump repeatedly argued that the violence that ensued was the result of "both sides," including counterprotesters who had taken to the streets to oppose the racist marchers. His comments were widely condemned by Democrats and Republicans, prompting him to deliver a scripted speech condemning the white supremacist marchers.

But it wasn't long before, at his first opportunity to give off-the-cuff remarks to the media, Trump returned to his original position that there were "some very fine people," among the neo-Nazi and Ku Klux Klan sympathizers who gathered in Charlottesville.

Some Republicans have cringed as Trump has taken what they consider to be legitimate grievances of white Americans who are upset about constantly being bombarded by racial justice politics and converted it into a shouting match between Trump and NFL players.

"There are a lot of people that don't live in the 202 area code that probably agreed with what he said and yelled and screamed that from their living rooms on more than one occasion," Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace said, referring to the area code for Washington, D.C. "Out here in Iowa, these grievances existed long before Trump came around.

"Trump is a blunt instrument, he's not leading anything," he added. "He's a hammer people just pick up because they're mad."

For many African-Americans, the trend has made Trump's true feelings on matters of race clear.

"This is the biggest white guy in the world trying to take on black America in total," said Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of sociology at Georgetown University.

During the national anthem before an October 2016 game, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, center, and outside linebacker Eli Harold, left, and free safety Eric Reid kneel in protest. (Reuters file)

At the Huntsville rally, Trump called for fans to boycott the NFL in the face of player anthem protests after bemoaning rules penalizing dangerous hits.

"But do you know what's hurting the game more than that?" Trump said. "When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it's one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway."

Despite a clear case that his performance and ability warranted at least a chance at a roster spot, Kaepernick remains unsigned.

At the rally, Trump went on to criticize the NFL for rules meant to increase player safety.

"The NFL ratings are down massively," he said. "Now the No. 1 reason happens to be they like watching what's happening with yours truly. They like what's happening. Because you know today if you hit too hard - (game officials penalize the offending team) 15 yards! Throw him out of 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."

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a tweet early Saturday morning: "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."

Trump's veering into sports Friday night comes after months of simmering tension between high-profile sports figures and the president. Many New England Patriots skipped the White House visit after winning January's Super Bowl.

Curry attracted the president's attention after the Warriors announced they would vote as a team whether to attend the White House, as is tradition for champions from all sports. Curry said he would vote against going.

"We don't stand for basically what our President ... the things that he said and the things that he hasn't said in the right terms that we won't stand for it," Curry said. "And by acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to.

"It's not just the act of not going. There are things you have to do on the back end to actually push that message into motion ... . And we all are trying to do what we can, using our platforms, using our opportunities to shed light on that."

Presidential White House invitations to championship teams are typically straightforward, celebratory affairs. In 2016, President Barack Obama called Cleveland Cavaliers Coach Ty Lue four days after the team won the title and to offer congratulations and invite them to the White House.

Administration officials and team executives then worked out scheduling details.

After Trump said he rescinded Curry's invitation, LeBron James slammed Trump on Twitter. He tweeted "U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going!" James said. "So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!"

James' statement illustrated a new paradigm in athlete activism. In the past, athletes have commented on the actions of politicians. This weekend, they are acting on the comments of a politician.

"The players are asking the right question," University of Richmond Law Chair Carl Tobias said. "When we speak out about political issues, why are we told to stick to sports?"

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