Donald Trump launched a sensational attack on NFL players who have kneeled in protest of the national anthem during a speech in Alabama on Friday night, challenging the league’s owners to release anyone who engages in the movement started last year by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“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 at a rally for Republican senator Luther Strange, who is running in a special election next week to remain in the seat vacated by attorney general Jeff Sessions.
“You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country.”
Trump went on to attribute the NFL’s dip in TV ratings to rule changes implemented over the last few years to make the game less violent and limit head injuries.
The issue was thrust back into the spotlight on Thursday with the revelation that Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots star who killed himself in April while serving a life sentence for murder, suffered a “severe” case of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive degenerative brain disease that has been linked to repeated blows to the head.
“The NFL ratings are down massively,” Trump said. “Now the No1 reason happens to be they like watching what’s happening … with yours truly. They like what’s happening. Because you know today if you hit too hard: 15 yards! Throw him out of the game!”
He added: “They’re ruining the game! That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”
The president then encouraged people attending NFL games to leave the stadium in counter-protest if they see a player kneeling during the anthem, which is traditionally performed before kickoff.
“But do you know what’s hurting the game more than that?” he said. “When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium.
“I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway.”
In a statement issued to the Guardian early Saturday morning, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell criticized Trump’s “divisive comments”.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” 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.”
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, said the union “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”.
Current and former players decried the president’s remarks. Minnesota Vikings running back Bishop Sankey tweeted: “It’s a shame and disgrace when you have the president of the US calling citizens of the country sons of a bitches.”
“When will people learn that fear won’t make someone sit down,” wrote Chris Conley, a wide receiver with the Kansas City Chiefs. “It quite possibly will make more stand up for what they believe in.”
Two-time All-Pro running back LeSean McCoy said: “It’s really sad man … our president is a asshole.” Husain Abdullah, who played seven seasons with the Vikings and Chiefs, added: “Now we know why [Kaepernick] ain’t playin.”
Undaunted, Trump wrote on Twitter: “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. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Goodell, he wrote, was “trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country. Tell them to stand!”
While Kaepernick has remained unsigned since opting out of his contract with the 49ers in March, players declining to stand for the anthem this season have included Marshawn Lynch, Marcus Peters and Michael Bennett.
More than a dozen Cleveland Browns staged the largest national anthem protest yet, and were joined by white players for what was believed to be the first time, before a preseason game against the New York Giants. The demonstration prompted a boycott of the team’s pre-game flag ceremony by members of unions representing Cleveland police officers and paramedics.
Kaepernick, whose protest became the NFL’s biggest storyline of last year, said in March he would not carry his protest into this season, in part because he believes his objective – to initiate nationwide debate on police brutality and racial injustice – has largely been accomplished.
Supporters allege Kaepernick, who four years ago took the 49ers to within seven yards of winning Super Bowl XLVI, is being blackballed for his advocacy. Critics say his lack of a job is more about his on-field ability.
Trump’s has made light of player safety rules before. At an October campaign stop in Florida, he praised a supporter who had fainted but returned after treatment.
“That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back,” Trump said. “See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussion … ‘Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season.’ Our people are tough.”