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Players, owners unite as Trump demands NFL ‘fire or suspend’ players or risk fan boycott

Players from several NFL teams protested President Trump’s recent comments before and during the national anthem on game day Sunday. (Video: Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)

SOMERSET, N.J. — As President Trump called for NFL owners to suspend or fire players who protested the national anthem, players and coaches answered defiantly Sunday morning, with most members of the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars either standing with their arms locked in solidarity or taking a knee on the field.

Ravens Coach John Harbaugh joined his players, locking arms, and Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, a Pakistani American billionaire and businessman, joined his players before the game's kickoff at 9:30 a.m. in London's Wembley Stadium. Ravens Hall of Famer Ray Lewis also took a knee during the anthem.

The show of defiance comes hours after Trump on Sunday morning renewed his demand that NFL owners fire or suspend players who kneel during the national anthem in protest, again urging that fans should boycott the sport to force change.

“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast,” Trump wrote. “Fire or suspend!”

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

But as players across the country went to their knees before games as other team mates and coaches locked hands in solidarity on Sunday afternoon, Trump tweeted is own interpretation of the protest, calling it "great solidarity for our national anthem."

"Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!" Trump said.

The tweets continue a three-day crusade by the president to pressure the league to fire players who have taken a knee to protest police violence against minorities. Trump has poured fuel on the flame of a simmering culture war and has further pushed sports deep into the political arena.

Among players, coaches and team owners, the public reaction has been sharply negative of his comments.

Even a close friend, Patriots CEO and Chairman Robert Kraft, who donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration, issued a sharply worded statement Sunday morning that condemned his comments and supported the right of players to peacefully protest “in a manner that they feel is most impactful.”

“I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday,” Kraft said. “I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities.

President Trump called on NFL owners to fire players who kneel during the national anthem, during a rambling speech in Alabama Sept. 22. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

“Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger,” he added. “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,” Kraft continued. “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.”

Patriots players have not protested during the anthem, and two of the team's most prominent members — Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady — also have had ties to the president.

Trump read a supportive letter from Belichick during a campaign rally, and Brady, while calling Trump a good friend and golfing buddy, has stopped short of saying that he voted for the president. His wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, was more definitive, saying, “NO!” when asked by an Instagram user whether she supported Trump.

Belichick and Kraft were among Patriots players who celebrated the team's Super Bowl victory with a visit to the White House. Brady cited family plans as the reason he stayed away. During that visit, Kraft gave Trump a Super Bowl ring.

Trump turns sports into a political battleground with comments on NFL and Stephen Curry

Trump has been animated by this issue for more than a year, telling his supporters at a campaign rally in October 2016 that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who was the first player to kneel in protest, was partly responsible for the drop in ratings.

“The NFL is way down in their ratings, two reasons, number one is this politics they're finding is a much rougher game than football and more exciting,” Trump said. “And the other reason is Kaepernick.”

NFL teams have been accused of blacklisting Kaepernick, who is now a free agent.

Trump seemed to suddenly fixate on the issue again during a rally in Alabama on Friday night, in which he suggested that coaches should get the “son of a b----" players off the field if they continued to kneel. The comments prompted swift backlash from players, the league and coaches, many of whom condemned Trump's comments.

On Saturday, the president didn't back down, however. He continued to tweet his call for the league to discipline players for showing “total disrespect” for the country.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump said on Saturday.: If not, YOU'RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

NFL owners, team presidents and chief executives react to President Trump’s comments

On ABC's “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin forcefully defended Trump's comments about NFL players demonstrating during the national anthem, saying that NFL owners should vote on new rules prohibiting the practice.

“This is about respect for the military, the first responders,” he said. Mnuchin also declined to criticize the coarse language Trump used, saying, “I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”

Of the players, Mnuchin said: “They have the right to have their First Amendment off the field. This is a job.”

Another White House official, Director of Legislative Affairs Marc Short, said on NBC News's “Meet the Press” that Trump is standing with the “vast majority” of Americans who believe the flag “should be respected.”

He added that Trump plans to take more action on improving race relations.

“The president believes it is his role to improve race relations,” Short said.

But Republican lawmakers were less enthusiastic about the president's strategy for expressing his disagreement with players.

Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) said on Sunday that the president should be focused on other issues like the North Korean crisis and the debate over health care.

“When it comes to this recent spat with the NFL, look, there are far more important things that we ought to be focusing on,” Gardner said on CBS's “Face the Nation.”

On NBC's “Meet the Press,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) agreed that if he were president he would “probably would not get involved in this” even though he believes Americans should stand for the national anthem.

As this week's games kick off Sunday, more players are expected to take a knee in protest after Trump's comments.

But as the president continued his campaign against protesting NFL players, his comments reverberated across other sports, including baseball and basketball.

After Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, who had indicated that he would not go to the White House if invited by Trump, the president preemptively disinvited the team in a tweet on Saturday morning.

“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump said.

On Sunday afternoon, Trump tweeted an announcement that Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins would accept an invitation to come to the White House.

Other players including Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant sharply criticized Trump. Saturday, Oakland Athletics catcher Bruce Maxwell became the first MLB player to kneel during the national anthem.

The Oakland Raiders offensive linemen, the only entirely African American offensive line unit in the league, intend to kneel or sit during the anthem preceding the nationally televised “Sunday Night Football” game against the Washington Redskins on NBC.

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.