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Trump: NFL players unwilling to stand for anthem maybe ‘shouldn’t be in the country’

A new national anthem policy enacted May 23 addresses controversial protests by NFL players. (Video: Reuters)
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NFL players unwilling to stand for the national anthem should be barred from playing and maybe “shouldn’t be in the country,” President Trump said in a television interview that aired Thursday.

The president was reacting to the adoption Wednesday of a new NFL policy that could bring disciplinary action for players who kneel or make other protests during the national anthem.

Trump said he objected to a provision in the new policy that will allow players to stay in the locker room while the song is played, but added: “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 they shouldn’t be in the country,” Trump said in an interview that aired Thursday morning on “Fox & Friends” on Fox News.

The protests were started to call attention to police shootings against African Americans and other issues of racial inequities, but they have morphed into wider struggles in America’s culture wars.

What the NFL’s new rules for anthem protests really mean for the First Amendment, according to experts

Supporters of the take-a-knee movement say it’s a form of free expression and social activism. Critics, led by Trump, have decried it as an unpatriotic slap at American traditions and unity.

Trump said the owners are “doing the right thing” on the issue, which he turned into a cause celebre last year with provocative comments at a rally and a barrage of tweets.

“I think the [American] people pushed it forward. This was not me,” he said. “This country is very smart. We have very smart people.”

Trump’s comments, taped Wednesday, came shortly hours after the NFL announced a policy that no longer requires players to be on the field during the playing of the anthem, but allows teams and the league to impose discipline for those who protest publicly during the song.

The new policy, announced after a two-day meeting of the league’s 32 owners, leaves it to individual teams to discipline players for acts deemed disrespectful during the anthem but also gives the league wide discretion to fine teams for actions taken by players.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said afterward that the objective is to “have people to be respectful of the national anthem.”

The changes are the latest development in a polarizing debate that began with Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the anthem in 2016. It then became more heated last fall following comments from Trump.

Under the new policy, players may choose to remain in the locker room during the playing of the national anthem, but owners said that those who choose to be on the sideline will be expected to stand. The changes also allow the league to fine teams for any protest during the anthem by one of its players.

Hours after the new policy was announced, Vice President Pence tweeted “#Winning,” with an image of an American flag and a screenshot of a CNN story about the new policy, which described the NFL’s decision as “a stunning victory for President Trump.” Pence’s tweet was retweeted by the White House’s official @POTUS account.

Maske reported from Atlanta.