NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith rejected President Donald Trump’s criticism of the NFL during a speech he made Friday night in Alabama.
Appearing at a rally for Alabama Republican Senate candidate Luther Strange, Trump said NFL owners should fire any players who protest during the national anthem and that fans should walk out of games in which players demonstrate against the anthem. Trump said team owners should respond to protesting players by saying, “Get that son of a [expletive] off the field right now, he’s fired. He’s fired!” He also said if fans “leave the stadium” when players protest the anthem, “I guarantee, things will stop.”
Trump also chided the NFL for being too strict on rules that seek to limit hits that put players in harm’s way. “Today if you hit too hard: Fifteen yards [for a penalty]. Throw him out of the game. That’s what [the players] want to do. They want to hit. It is hurting the game.”
In a statement issued by the NFL Saturday morning, Goodell said “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.”
Goodell also said “the NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month.”
Smith said in a statement released shortly before Goodell’s, “Whether or not Roger [Goodell] and the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen. This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks.”
Neither statement mentioned Trump by name.
Trump suggested in his speech that any owner who did release a player protesting the anthem would be “the most popular person in this country.”
“You know, some owner is gonna do that,” Trump said. “He’s gonna say, ‘That guy disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it. They don’t know it. They’re friends of mine, many of them. They don’t know it. They’ll be the most popular person, for a week. They’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Several NFL owners contributed to Trump’s election campaign, including Woody Johnson of the Jets, Bob McNair of the Texans, Shad Khan of the Jaguars and Robert Kraft of the Patriots. Kraft has visited with Trump at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and the Patriots visited the White House to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl victory in February. Some of the team’s African-American players chose not to attend the ceremony, and Tom Brady, who has supported Trump, did not attend, citing family commitments.
Kraft and the NFL are being sued by the family of the late tight end Aaron Hernandez, who was recently determined to have had the neurodegenerative brain disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The suit seeks $20 million in damages. Hernandez was found guilty in April 2015 of first-degree murder in the death of Odin Lloyd. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Last April, Hernandez was found dead in his prison cell in what authorities ruled a suicide.
Trump frequently criticized former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for his anthem protests last season, although the president did not mention Kaepernick by name in Friday’s speech. Kaepernick, who initially sat during an anthem playing and then took a knee to protest racial injustice in America, opted out of his contract with the 49ers in March and remains unsigned. Kaepernick’s mother, Teresa, wrote on her Twitter account Saturday morning, “Guess that makes me a proud [expletive]!” Colin Kaepernick has not responded to Trump’s remarks.
Several players continue to demonstrate during the anthem, and it remains to be seen whether more players will choose to protest when the NFL resumes play on Sunday. Among the players who have protested the anthem this season: Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters and Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch.
Many current and former players pushed back at Trump’s remarks.
“Smh [Shaking my head]! Gives more reason,” Buccaneers safety T.J. Ward said on Twitter, suggesting more players will protest the anthem.
“Trump stay in ur place . . . football have nothing to do wit u smh,” Redskins linebacker Zach Brown wrote on Twitter.
Former NFL running back Reggie Bush wrote on his Twitter account, “#Kaepernick we riding with you bro.”
“Does anyone tell trump to stick to politics like they tell us to stick to sports? Smh,” Lions tight end Eric Ebron said on Twitter.
Four current and former NFL players seeking to promote racial equality and criminal justice reform wrote a letter in August to Goodell seeking support for their efforts and endorsing an activism awareness month, Yahoo! Sports reported Thursday. The 10-page letter was endorsed by Bennett, Jenkins, Eagles receiver Torrey Smith and former NFL receiver Anquan Boldin. The NFL has not commented on the letter or whether it plans to set aside an activism awareness month.