Protests against police brutality and racial inequality spread across the NFL Sunday in response to President Donald Trump’s call for a fan boycott.
At the start of Sunday’s games, many players locked arms in solidarity or kneeled in protest during the national anthem. Some Kansas City Chiefs players, including Marcus Peters, Travis Kelce, Chris Conley and Justin Houston, did not stand for the anthem before their game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Trump had urged teams to fire or suspend protesting athletes. But on Sunday more players than ever joined the demonstrations.
The NFL, the player’s union and most team owners backed the protests, calling Trump’s attacks “offensive,” “inappropriate” and “divisive.”
“I believe in honoring the American flag and supporting all of those whose sacrifices protect the many freedoms we have in this country, including the right to have differences of opinion,” Hunt said in the statement released Sunday afternoon.
“Sports have long been a unifying force — especially in challenging times —and hatred and division have no place in our game. As a nation, we face serious challenges, and I believe as Americans, each of us has a responsibility to engage one another with empathy and humility to gain a better understanding of ways we can work together to solve these difficult issues.”
Trump on Sunday for the first time called for a fan boycott, continuing a three-day condemnation of players who have sat or taken a knee to protest police violence against minorities.
“If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or Suspend!” Trump tweeted.
“NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.”
The NFL and most owners responded this weekend by supporting the players’ right to protest and disagreeing with Trump’s remarks.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Saturday.
“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
Trump’s comments unified players and led to more protests on Sunday, becoming the main story across the league.
Most members of the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars stood with their arms locked in solidarity or took a knee on the field before Sunday morning’s kickoff in London’s Wembley Stadium.
Trump weighed in on the protests Sunday afternoon tweeting: “Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad Ratings!”
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin told CBS Sunday morning that the Steelers wouldn’t be participating in the national anthem because they were not “going to let divisive times or divisive individuals” affect their agenda.
“We are not going to play politics with football players or football coaches,” Tomlin said. “We are not participating in the anthem today, not to be disrespectful to the anthem (but) to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn’t have to choose.”
“The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses,” said NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith in a statement Saturday.
“Those opinions are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussions in our locker rooms and in board rooms. However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just ‘shut up and play.’”
Trump first brought up the issue while giving a speech Friday night in Alabama.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,’” Trump said to loud applause at a rally.
Since then, he has echoed those comments and taken the further step of calling for the boycott.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin followed up Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” defending Trump, saying the NFL has many rules governing what players can and cannot do.
“I think what the president is saying is that the owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem,” Mnuchin said. “They can do free speech on their own time.”
Conley tweeted: “‘Stick to sports boy ... Sit down and do what your told. Say or do something we don’t like and your fired’ Well I hate to break it to ya...
“When will people learn that fear won’t make someone sit down. It quite possibly will make more stand up for what they believe in.”
Free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the movement last year when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, refusing to stand during the national anthem to protest the treatment of black people by police.
Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters has drawn attention by peacefully sitting during the anthem this year.
Prior to the Sept. 7 opener at New England, Peters posted a tweet that displayed the bottoms of shoes inscribed with the words “LIBERTY” and “JUSTICE FOR ALL.”
Peters was condemned on social media. Star columnist Jenee Osterheldt attracted appalling abuse in reaction to a column endorsing Peters.
In a statement released on Twitter, New England Patriots chairman and chief executive Robert Kraft on Sunday said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments by the president.” Kraft had been a strong supporter of Trump.
“Comments like we heard last night from the president are inappropriate, offensive and divisive,” said New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch. “We are proud of our players, the vast majority of whom use their NFL platform to make a positive difference in our society.”
The Buffalo Bills held a voluntary team meeting Saturday with players, coaches, staff and ownership.
“Our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to provide and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality,” owners Terry and Kim Pegula said in a statement distributed by the Bills.
Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said: “We recognize our players’ influence. We respect their demonstration and support them 100 percent. All voices need to be heard. That’s democracy in its highest form.”
Denver Broncos president and chief executive Joe Ellis said the team’s players have raise awareness for important societal issues by using their platform in a positive way.
“As an organization, we could not be more proud, appreciative and grateful for our players. We’ll continue to support them and work together to advocate for values of respect, diversity and inclusion.”
Star staff writers Terez A. Paylor and Sam Mellinger, and The Associated Press, contributed to this report.