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President Trump says NFL players who protest shouldn’t be in the game — and maybe not even in the country

The NFL enacted a new policy May 23 that requires players to stand for the national anthem or wait in the locker room. (Video: Victoria Walker/The Washington Post)

President Trump praised the NFL's decision to implement a policy forbidding players from protesting racism and police brutality during the national anthem, going so far as to say that those who violate it should not be able to play.

“I think that’s good,” Trump said in a “Fox & Friends” interview that aired Thursday. “I don’t think people should be staying in the locker rooms, but still I think it’s good. You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”

When Trump was stumping during the U.S. Senate race in Alabama in 2017, he reignited a controversy that had mostly fallen out of the headlines by saying NFL owners should not allow players to protest the national anthem.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out. He’s fired. He’s fired,' ” the president said to roaring applause in Huntsville, Ala.

Those NFL players may not have been fired for their protests as Trump suggested. But the commander in chief may ultimately have gotten what he wanted: protesting athletes off the football field.

The NFL released a new national anthem policy Wednesday making it clear that athletes wanting to protest on the field would not be able to do so without consequences.

The Washington Post's Mark Maske reports that the new policy gives teams the authority to set their own anthem-related rules — and consequences.

Teams would then have the ability to set their own policy for players who choose to take the field for the anthem, including the ability to discipline a player for any protest during the national anthem. … The new policy also contains a clause that the league could fine a team for any protest by a player on the sideline during the anthem, according to a person familiar with the owners’ deliberations. Any team that wants to allow players to protest would have to be willing to pay a potential fine by the league.

Trump has yet to weigh in on the decision, but Vice President Pence, who walked out of a football game in November after some athletes protested during the anthem, celebrated the decision on Twitter.

Much other social media response to the NFL decision was negative.

It is too soon to tell how many Americans overall support the league's decision. However, various surveys showed that many took issue with the protests.

According to a CBS/YouGov poll released in the fall, 50 percent of white respondents said players were trying to disrespect the flag, but only 11 percent of black respondents said the same.

The overwhelming majority (88 percent) of black respondents said the players were trying to call attention to unfair policing, while 67 percent of white respondents believed this was the case.

There were also divisions based on politics, with conservatives and Trump supporters more likely to disapprove of the protest, according to a September CBS News poll.

Trump wanted athletes who used their freedom to protest lose their jobs, but he also seemed to want to stifle the criticism some of the protesters had lobbed his way since he began his presidential campaign.

Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has frequently attacked Trump, accusing him of stoking the racism he says is rampant nationwide. Most Americans agreed with Kaepernick, saying at the start of the most recent football season that Trump's comments and behavior enable white supremacists. A few months later, most Americans said they believe Trump is racist.

The issues the athletes wanted to draw attention to are newsy, often aligning with the conversations on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Regardless of how different groups of Americans feel about the protests, significant numbers acknowledge that racism continues to be a problem in the United States, with a majority of Americans saying race relations are poor.

The question many are debating is whether the NFL and its employees have a responsibility to respond to that. Many athletes say yes, while some coaches apparently disagree. What is clear is that preventing NFL players from addressing the issue via protest is unlikely to improve those relations — and may end up causing more tension between NFL leaders and players.

The NFL Players Association said it was not consulted about the decision and promised to challenge any aspect of the policy that is inconsistent with the collective bargaining agreement.

“The vote by NFL club CEOs today contradicts the statements made to our player leadership by Commissioner Roger Goodell and the Chairman of the NFL’s Management Council John Mara about the principles, values and patriotism of our League,” the union said in a statement.