US President Donald Trump has urged a boycott of the National Football League (NFL) to force teams to punish players who protest during the national anthem.
Mr Trump’s comments have been condemned as “offensive” and “divisive”.
At the start of the first game since the row began, many players and staff kneeled during the US anthem.
More than 20 players and staff from the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens knelt at the start of their game in London.
Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shahid Khan – who donated $1m (£740,000) to the Trump campaign – locked his arms with players in an unusual scene, as owners rarely join players on the pitch.
Mr Trump’s remarks can be seen as an attempt to appeal to core supporters, BBC North America reporter Anthony Zurcher says.
This is a fight Mr Trump relishes, our reporter adds, because he knows his base will flock to him when he questions the patriotism of wealthy athletes. It may also be a way of deflecting attention after a difficult week, in which:
- His latest effort to repeal Obama-era healthcare legislation suffered a potentially fatal blow after Senator John McCain said he could not vote for it
- His candidate in Alabama’s Republican Senate runoff on Tuesday, Senator Luther Strange, lagged behind former State Supreme Court justice Roy Moore, polls suggested
Warning: This article contains language some readers may find offensive.
What did Mr Trump say?
In two tweets early on Sunday just hours before a series of NFL games, Mr Trump repeated his call for clubs to punish players who protested during the US anthem.
He was referring to a string of controversial protests started by player Colin Kaepernick last year when he sat or kneeled during the anthem to highlight the treatment of black Americans.
To a crowd of cheering supporters on Friday, he asked: “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… he is fired’?”
Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers to the 2013 Super Bowl but his status in the team has declined since and he lost his starting place last year.
No team has offered him a job as a quarterback and his supporters say he is being pushed out because of his political action. But others say his status as a “free agent” is down to his performance on the field.
What has the reaction been?
Mr Trump’s remarks on Friday have been widely criticised, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell saying in a statement that “divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect”.
President Trump, however, doubled down on his comments in a tweet, saying: “Tell them to stand!”.
The NFL Players’ Association said the president had crossed a line by effectively telling players to just “shut up and play”.
Association president Eric Winston said Mr Trump’s comments were “a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present”.
In other reaction:
- New England Patriots CEO Robert Kraft said he was “deeply disappointed” by the comments, and that he supported players’ rights “to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner they feel is most impactful”
- Miami Dolphins owner and founder Stephen Ross said the US needed “unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness” and that the players who protested were “smart young men of character who want to make our world a better place”
- Jed York, CEO of the San Francisco 49ers, Kaepernick’s former team, said he would continue to support his players, calling the comments “callous and offensive”
But there has been no comment from many teams, including New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a wealthy businessman and Trump campaign donor who was appointed as his ambassador to the UK.
Earlier on Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Mr Trump’s comments on ABC’s This Week programme, saying: “I think the president can use whatever language he wants to use.”
Who else has joined in the criticism?
On Saturday night, the Oakland Athletics’ Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel in protest during the national anthem, mimicking the gesture of protest started by Colin Kaepernick.
His father is in the military and he was born on an army base, US media report. He told a reporter he was “kneeling for people that don’t have a voice”.
Isn’t there an NBA row too?
On Saturday, Mr Trump withdrew an invitation to the White House to basketball champions the Golden State Warriors after one player, Stephen Curry, said he did not want to attend.
Curry – NBA’s top performer in 2015 – said he wanted to show that he and other players did not stand for “the things that he’s said and the things that he hasn’t said in the right times”.
“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team,” Mr Trump tweeted afterwards. “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”
In response, triple NBA champion LeBron James, one of the sport’s foremost stars, labelled the President a “bum”. “Going to White House was an honour until you showed up,” he said.
Retired star Kobe Bryant also tweeted his support, saying: “A [president] whose name alone creates division and anger. Whose words inspire dissension and hatred can’t possibly ‘Make America Great Again’.”
The Golden State Warriors, meanwhile, said the team had clearly understood “that we are not invited” to the White House but would visit Washington DC on its own “to celebrate equality, diversity, and inclusion”.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he was disappointed the team would not be visiting the White House but was “proud” of the players for speaking out.
Separately, 2017 college basketball champions the North Carolina Tar Heels announced they, too, would not be going to the White House to celebrate their victory, despite being invited.
A spokesman said a suitable date that worked for both parties could not be found.