LOUDON, N.H. (CBSNewYork/AP) — President Donald Trump sought to downplay Sunday’s national anthem protests in the NFL while applauding NASCAR for avoiding such demonstrations.
More than 200 NFL players knelt or sat on a bench or raised a fist or, in the case of most of the Steelers, Titans and Seahawks, remained indoors as national anthems echoed through stadiums. A week ago, a half-dozen players took a stance.
The protests came in response to Trump’s comments at a rally Friday in Alabama in which he said that when NFL owners see players disrespecting the flag they should say “get that son of a bitch off the field right now, he’s fired.” He also has suggested fans who are offended by the protests should boycott the NFL.
Trump tweeted Monday morning that many fans booed the players who participated in the protests, adding that only a small percentage of NFL athletes joined in.
Former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was the first NFL player to kneel during the national anthem last season while he protested racial oppression and police brutality in the U.S. He inspired other players to join him, and the protests and Kaepernick’s unemployment — some feel the free agent has been blackballed because of his political views — are racially sensitive topics.
But Trump insisted Monday morning his hard stand against the anthem protests is not about race.
“The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race,” Trump tweeted. “It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!”
“This isn’t about the president being against anyone,” White House Spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday. “This is about the president and millions of Americans being for something. Being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem.”
For the first time, some New York Giants players took a knee before their game in Philadelphia. And the Jets chose to lock arms in a show of unity that included their owner.
“The team decided that before I got there,” said acting owner Christopher Johnson, whose brother, Woody, was appointed by Trump to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. “I just asked if I could join them.”
“It’s about standing together,” Jets defensive tackle Steve McLendon said. “Everybody just locking arms and saying we in this together, no matter what color your skin is, no matter where you come from.”
Even Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a friend of Trump’s, voiced his displeasure about the president’s Friday comments. Brady stood for the anthem Sunday, but locked arms with wide receiver Phillip Dorsett to show unity with his teammates.
“I certainly disagree with what he said. I thought it was just divisive,” Brady told Boston’s WEEI Radio on Monday morning. “Like I said, I just want to support my teammates.”
Others refused to join in. Saints quarterback Drew Brees stood on the sideline for the national anthem in Carolina, his hand firmly over his heart while nearly a dozen teammates sat behind him on the bench.
“I will always feel that if you are an American the national anthem is an opportunity for us all to stand up together, to be unified and show respect for our country and to show respect for what it stands for,” Brees said.
NFL fans are, too, divided on the issue.
“I think they should be allowed to protest as long as it’s peacefully,” one fan told 1010 WINS’ John Montone on Monday. “They should protest the way they want, and if they believe in the cause they should protest.”
“There’s a time and a place for everything,” another fan said. “This is football. We’re not here to talk about politics.”
“If they don’t stand and honor the flag, I’m seriously thinking about not supporting anymore,” one fan told WCBS 880’s Marla Diamond.
“I support the First Amendment, freedom of speech,” one man said. “So he (Trump) can say what he wants, but players can, too.”
The issue spread beyond football, with the biggest name in basketball speaking out.
“I commend theses guys and I commend everybody for making a difference,” Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James said.
But New York Congressman Peter King says any player who doesn’t respect the anthem should be penalized.
“If a player’s going to be fined for putting 9/11 on his cleats or for wearing a patch commemorating police officers who were assassinated, then I think strongly the NFL should have fines and procedures and if they have to expel players who won’t abide by the rules of the national anthem,” he said.
Meanwhile, in NASCAR, it was business as usual Sunday. No drivers, crew or other team members protested during the national anthem prior to a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
“So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!” Trump tweeted.
Several team owners and executives had said Sunday they wouldn’t want anyone in their organizations to protest. Richard Childress, who was Dale Earnhardt’s longtime team owner, said of protesting: “It’ll get you a ride on a Greyhound bus.”
Childress said he told his team that “anybody that works for me should respect the country we live in. So many people gave their lives for it. This is America.”
Hall of Fame driver Richard Petty’s sentiments took it a step further, saying: “Anybody that don’t stand up for the anthem oughta be out of the country. Period. What got ’em where they’re at? The United States.”
When asked if a protester at Richard Petty Motorsports would be fired, he said, “You’re right.”
NASCAR chairman Brian France created a firestorm in the sport when he endorsed Trump last year. France’s efforts to quell criticism over what he insisted was a “personal and private” decision were complicated by Trump’s continued mentioning of how he received “NASCAR’s endorsement.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver who will retire at the end of the season, tweeted Monday in support of peaceful protest.
“All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests. Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable-JFK,” he wrote.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)