ATLANTA — President Trump was greeted by a roar of cheers and a smattering of boos as he stepped onto the field Monday night for the biggest game in college football, while activist groups demonstrated a president who has used sports to incite political battles.
Hours before, Trump, speaking to a group of farmers and ranchers in Nashville, again criticized athletes who do not stand for the national anthem.
“There’s plenty of space for people to express their views and to protest, but we love our flag and we love our anthem and we want to keep it that way,” he told the annual gathering of the Farm Bureau.
At the national championship game between the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama at Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Trump stood for the national anthem, and then he left to take his seat.
The Atlanta branch of the NAACP on Monday afternoon had encouraged those going to the game to wear white and wave white towels if they disagreed with Trump’s policies and statements, a move meant to mock conservatives who sometimes call liberals “snowflakes.” The organization also asked people to tweet during the game about the alleged falsehoods told by the president during his first year in office.
NAACP Atlanta did not plan any sort of demonstration aside from the tweetstorm, chapter president Richard Rose said, and did not want to disrupt the game. The group protested policies and statements by the Trump administration it deems racist, such as Trump’s hesitance in condemning white nationalists and Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s rollback of Obama administration policies on civil rights issues, including criminal justice, policing and voting rights, Rose said.
“This is a demonstration for American principles, American rights, American safety,” Rose said.
A second group, Refuse Fascism and Refuse Fascism ATL, held a protest outside CNN’s world headquarters nearby to support the athletes Trump has criticized for kneeling during the national anthem to protest social injustice and police brutality. As of 7 p.m., about 30 people marched in the rain, some holding signs that read “Keep your tiny hands off my button,” and “The City of Atlanta + Cobb County Hates Trump.”
One protester, Katrina Griessman, said she was upset that Trump decided to attend “this particular, sacred, Georgia-Alabama game.”
“Everybody is so pumped up about the game, and he’s trying to take attention away,” she said.
While Atlanta’s mayor, Keisha Lance Bottoms, promised a “safe, smooth and secure” championship, the president’s appearance created additional traffic and logistical headaches for the city, which expected 100,000 people to arrive for events associated with the title game. A year ago, Trump described Atlanta on Twitter as “falling apart” and “crime infested” after Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) refused to attend his inauguration. It’s something the people of Atlanta, which leans Democratic, haven’t forgotten.
The game’s halftime performer, Kendrick Lamar, has criticized the president, with lyrics such as “Donald Trump is a chump, know how we feel, punk/ Tell ’em that God comin’/ And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to something” in “The Heart Part 4.”
Trump has called on National Football League owners to let go of players who demonstrate against police brutality during the national anthem. There have been few on-field demonstrations from college players.
Trump has also clashed with other professional sports players. In September, he rescinded a White House invitation to National Basketball Association star Stephen Curry, who said he would vote against visiting the president with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
In October, Vice President Pence walked out of an NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and the San Francisco 49ers after some 49ers players knelt during the national anthem.
But in Atlanta, the two Southeastern Conference schools facing off are “in the heart of Trump country,” according to White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump, a Republican, won Alabama by 30 points and Georgia by 5 over Democrat Hillary Clinton in the last presidential election. Trump did, however, face political defeat last month when Republican Roy Moore lost the U.S. Senate race in Alabama to Democrat Doug Jones, who was sworn into office Wednesday. Trump had endorsed Moore.
On Monday, Rose was unsure if Trump — who is fond of Twitter — would recognize the NAACP’s tweetstorm. But if he does, “he will probably respond in some manner, at 3 o’clock tomorrow morning,” Rose said with a chuckle.
“We’ll be prepared for it.”
Cindy Boren contributed to this report.