Republican Corey Stewart condemned NFL players who took a knee to protest police brutality against minority communities, during a Wednesday news conference. (Jenna Portnoy/TWP)

First it was Confederate monuments.

Now Corey Stewart, who has a knack for seizing on issues that roil liberals and conservatives, on Wednesday called the National Football League "a cartel" for benefiting from federal antitrust protections while supporting players who take a knee during the national anthem.

Stewart is trying to ride his better-than-expected performance in the summer's GOP primary for Virginia governor to a campaign against Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), who is seeking a second term after running on the national ticket in 2016 with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

So far, Stewart is the only Republican seeking his party's nomination for the 2018 contest.

After struggling with a music stand fashioned into a makeshift lectern, Stewart spoke in front of a downtown Washington office building that houses the NFL Players Association, the players' union. Trucks rumbled by in mid-morning traffic.

He opened a 12-minute news conference reading the names of Marines killed recently in Afghanistan and said NFL players — and owners — who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality against minority communities are disrespecting the military.

"The players represented by this organization behind me are not heroes," Stewart said. "They are overpaid, arrogant, disrespectful, ungrateful, unpatriotic."

Following President Trump's condemnation of protesting players, which thrust the issue into the national discourse over the weekend, NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith praised players for taking a knee.

"NFL players are a part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities," he said in a statement. "They chose — and still choose today — to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports."

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Stewart called on the Senate to introduce a bill to repeal the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961, which he said allows teams to negotiate as a group with networks broadcasting games, and inflate ticket and merchandise costs.

Without the rules, he said, perhaps owners would suffer, adding, "Frankly I hope that those teams go bankrupt."

Players who take a knee on the field are being paid "essentially by all of us as fans," and should limit their protests to their free time.

Stewart said he had not talked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) about his proposal. He did not mention Kaine during his remarks.

"We will let Corey keep doing his best Donald Trump imitation," Ian Sams, a spokesman for Kaine's reelection campaign, said in a statement. "Senator Kaine is focused on representing all Virginians and fighting to save their health care."

As chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, Stewart worked on an unsuccessful deal for the county to borrow $35 million to build a stadium for the Potomac Nationals minor league baseball team.

Asked how that situation is different from the breaks the NFL receives, he said he "is focused on the NFL right now."