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Trump suggests fans ‘refuse to go’ to NFL games amid protests

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the

Several New England Patriots players kneel during the national anthem before an NFL football game against the Houston Texans, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2017, in Foxborough, Mass. Credit: AP

NFL players, coaches and owners stood arm-in-arm as others knelt during the national anthem before their games Sunday in a show of solidarity after President Donald Trump’s call for protesting players to be fired.

Three teams — the Tennessee Titans, the Seattle Seahawks and all but one of the Pittsburgh Steelers — chose to stay in their lockerooms while the national anthem played.

The scene in stadiums presented a unified front for the league — and a diverse display of races and political views — as Trump ramped up his condemnation of professional athletes who refuse to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” tweeting they are “disrespecting our Flag & Country.”

The president wrote on Twitter Sunday morning that NFL fans should stop attending games to spur officials to “fire or suspend” demonstrating football players.

In the afternoon, he responded with approval to what had played out on the field.

“Great solidarity for our national anthem and for our Country,” he tweeted. “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!”

Sunday night, he again called for policy changes, tweeting “Sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!”

Before the Giants took the field in Philadelphia against the Eagles, players linked arms as three others — Landon Collins, Damon Harrison and Olivier Vernon — knelt down.

At MetLife Stadium, acting Jets owner Christopher Johnson stood arm-in-arm with the team, though none took a knee. His brother and team owner Woody Johnson is U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom, appointed by Trump.

In a statement, Christopher Johnson didn’t criticize the president, but said the team is “very proud of our players and their strong commitment to work in our community to make a positive, constructive, and unifying impact.”

Sunday’s final game, the nationally televised contest between the Oakland Raiders and the Washington Redskins, played out at FedEx Field in suburban Maryland, about 13 miles east of the White House. Most of the Raiders players remained seated on the bench, arm-in-arm, while a few stood. The majority of the Redskins stood arm-in-arm but several players kneeled.

Among players locking arms on the field before other games was New England quarterback Tom Brady, a Trump supporter often praised by the president. Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft, a longtime Trump friend, was among the owners criticizing the president’s statements.

Colin Kaepernick, a former San Francisco 49ers quarterback, last year began kneeling during the pregame anthem performance in an act he said protested the country’s oppression of people of color.

Trump, speaking to reporters Sunday night at the Morristown, New Jersey, airport as he left his estate in nearby Bedminster and returned to Washington, D.C., dismissed a question about his remarks fueling racial tensions. The majority of protesting professional athletes are black.

“This has nothing to do with race or anything else,” Trump said. “This has to do with respect for our country and respect for our flag.”

He used profanity at a Friday rally in Alabama where he rejected protests like Kaepernick’s.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that [expletive] off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!’ ” the president said.

He stepped up the criticism over the weekend even amid mounting pushback from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who called Trump’s comments “divisive,” team owners and former coaches, including Trump campaign supporters.

Trump tweeted Sunday morning, “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!”

A second tweet said, “NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”

Sunday games started in London, where members of the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars linked arms as some players knelt while the anthem was played.

Jaguars owner Shahid Khan linked arms with players and in a statement called Trump’s remarks “divisive and contentious.”

All but one member of the Pittsburgh Steelers chose to stay in the locker room during the anthem before their game in Chicago against the Bears at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Steeler offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, stood outside the tunnel, his right hand over his heart, as the anthem played before the team’s game at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

Both the Tennessee Titans and the Seattle Seahawks remained in the locker room as the anthem played before their game in Nashville.

The Seahawks sent out a tweet on behalf of the team that in part said players made their decision because they “will not stand for the injustice that has plagued people of color in this country.” The Titans tweeted “Together. #Titanup” with a video of players walking onto the field arm-in-arm.

Former Jets head coach Rex Ryan said Sunday he was appalled by the president’s remarks.

“I’m [expletive] off, I’ll be honest with you,” Ryan said on ESPN. “Because I supported Donald Trump. . . . But I’m reading these comments, and it’s appalling to me. And I’m sure it’s appalling to almost any citizen in our country. It should be.”

Kraft said he is “deeply disappointed” by the president’s language Friday.

“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,” Kraft said in a statement.

Fans at games and in sports bars had mixed reactions.

Chris Hecker, 27, of Merrick, said while waiting with friends at Penn Station to go to the game at Met Life Stadium he thought requiring players to stand during the anthem was “suppressing free speech.”

Howard Rosenblum of Williston Park said at the Jets game. “The owners are paying the players millions and millions of dollars. The owners should request them to stand. If they don’t want to stand, it would be up to the owners to penalize them or get rid of them.”Hell’s Kitchen resident Tommy Walsh, 22, said at the Pig & Whistle pub in Manhattan that he doesn’t agree with the protest but also doesn’t agree with Trump’s involvement.

“I think he’s right, but he should mind his business,” Walsh said.

Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) tweeted his support for the president’s position.

“Proud to stand with @POTUS Trump in support of standing for national anthem in support of America’s military and police,” King wrote.

Administration officials on Sunday talk shows backed the president’s stance that NFL team owners should discourage their players from demonstrating.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said players should protest off the field and that the president believes NFL team owners should institute a rule that they stand for the anthem.

“It’s not about free speech. . . . They can do free speech on their own time,” he told ABC News’ “This Week.”

White House legislative affairs director Marc Short said on “Fox News Sunday”: “All across America, high school coaches are getting punished for leading their players in prayer. They’re getting punished and disciplined for asking their players to pray. Yet, in the NFL, players who take a knee over a flag that many of our generations preceding us have died to protect the freedoms there, they somehow get honored as martyrs by the media.”

With Scott Eidler, Anthony Rieber, Roger Rubin, Lisa Colangelo and Alison Fox

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