The national debate over the player protests was stoked by Trump last fall, as some NFL players, following the example of Colin Kaepernick, took a knee during the anthem to raise awareness of social injustice and police brutality. The president called for any “son of a bitch” who did so to be fired, and frequently said that the demonstrations were an insult to troops.
O’Rourke, who is challenging Republican Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas, talked in his lengthy response about Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and other American activists whose past protests raised awareness and prompted change.
“Non-violently, peacefully, while the eyes of this country are watching these games, they take a knee to bring our attention and our focus to this problem to ensure that we fix it,” O’Rourke said of the players. “That is why they are doing it. And I can think of nothing more American than to peacefully stand up, or take a knee, for your rights, any time, anywhere, in any place.”
On Tuesday night in West Virginia, while O’Rourke’s days-old remarks were going viral, Trump called out ESPN for not televising the national anthem before “Monday Night Football” NFL games, a continuation of the network’s past policy.
“You’re proud of our country, you’re proud of our history, and unlike the NFL, you always honor and cherish our great American flag,” Trump told a crowd at a rally in West Virginia. “It was just announced by ESPN that rather than defending our anthem, our beautiful, beautiful national anthem and defending our flag, they’ve decided that they just won’t broadcast when they play the national anthem. We don’t like that.”
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ESPN broadcast the anthem before a Dallas Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals game last season, when Dallas owner Jerry Jones joined his team in taking a knee and linking arms before the anthem, before rising to stand for it with arms locked. Other networks also made exceptions that week, when the anthem protests exploded into the news. But ESPN and the NFL’s other television partners have seldom shown the anthem in recent years.
“We generally have not broadcast the anthem, and I don’t think that will change this year,” ESPN’s new president, Jimmy Pitaro, told reporters last week. “Our plan going into this year is to not broadcast the anthem … again that could change. It’s unpredictable what could happen in the world, but as of now, we’re not.”
Trump also took aim Monday night at NFL players, whom he has continued to criticize during the offseason.
“So while the players are kneeling — some of them, not all of them at all — you’re all proudly standing for our national anthem,” he said.
The NFL’s regular season begins two weeks from Thursday, and the league and the players’ union continue to work toward agreement on an anthem policy. Owners during the offseason attempted to unilaterally enact a policy that would leave it up to each team to decide whether to discipline players for demonstrations during the anthem, but then halted implementation of that policy last month.
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