Less than three hours after President Trump called on NFL owners to suspend or fire players who protest during the national anthem, the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars — the first teams to play Sunday — linked arms or took a knee during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the teams 9:30 a.m. Eastern kickoff in London’s Wembley Stadium.
The reaction caps a volatile weekend in which the president angrily referred to protesters like Colin Kaepernick, the free agent whose protest started this movement, as a “son of a bitch” and looped in the NBA and Golden State Warriors, telling them they were not invited to visit the White House to celebrate their NBA title. That prompted LeBron James, who lost to Golden State in the Finals in June, to retort that the president is “a bum.” Along the way, the commissioners of both the NBA and NFL weighed in, along with the head of the NFL Players Association.
That came to a head Sunday morning, shortly after Trump tweeted again that owners should suspend or fire players.
Taking the field in London, Ravens Coach John Harbaugh joined his players, linking arms, and Ravens Hall of Famer Ray Lewis took a knee. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who had contributed $1 million to the Trump inauguration, locked arms with his players and the Jaguars’ coaches in what is believed to be the first visible participation in relation to anthem protests by a league owner.
One Ravens player stood alone, but seemed to be in prayer. All players appeared to stand for the playing of the British anthem, “God Save the Queen.”
Shortly before 7 a.m. Eastern, Trump had tweeted: “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country,” Trump tweeted, “you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
That continued a Friday night tirade in which President Trump used a profanity to describe NFL players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police brutality and social inequality as he spoke to a Huntsville, Ala., audience. It brought a torrent of responses from players to owners, accomplishing the kind of unity that has eluded the two frequently sparring sides. NFL Commissioner and NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith took the unusual step of speaking on the phone Sunday morning.
One owner who was placed in an awkward position was the Patriots’ Robert Kraft, who also gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural and presented him with a Super Bowl LI ring. In a statement Sunday, he said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone” of Trump’s comments.
“I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities,” Kraft said. “Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports and, unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. 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.”
In the NBA, Stephen Curry called Trump’s dis-invite surreal. “I don’t know why he feels the need to target certain individuals, rather than others. I have an idea of why, but it’s kind of beneath a leader of a country to go that route. That’s not what leaders do.”
Chris Paul, the president of the National Basketball Players Association, sent a pair of tweets attacking Trump’s stance, and Curry’s teammate, Draymond Green, asked in a tweet of his own, “Still wondering how this guy is running our country,” while Green Bay Packers tight end Martellus Bennett fired off a series of tweets on the matter. Among them: “The idea of [Donald Trump] thinking that suggesting firing me from football, [sic] confirms that he thinks that it’s all I can do as a Black man.”