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Trump creates firestorm over athletes’ taking a knee

9/29/2017, 7:20 a.m.
President Trump seems to have too little to do. Amid the damage from two hurricanes, a verbal feud with a ...
Players with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills take a knee during the playing of the national anthem before last Sunday’s game against the Denver Broncos in New York. Right, Olympic gold medalist Tommie Smith, center, and bronze medalist John Carlos raise their fist with the symbolic “Black Power” sign during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City after winning in the 200-meter track event. Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

President Trump seems to have too little to do.

Amid the damage from two hurricanes, a verbal feud with a nuclear North Korea and a host of other issues ranging from health care to tax reform, the president has triggered a spat with athletes in the nation’s most popular pro sports leagues, the NFL and the NBA.

And he’s not getting much respect — at least from the athletes he spent the weekend savaging — for triggering a fresh debate over race, justice and free speech.

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick

The spat began last Friday at a political rally in Alabama, where the president raged to an overwhelming white conservative crowd that any NFL player taking a knee in protest during the national anthem was an S.O.B. who should be fired.

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali

“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,’ ” President Trump said at the rally for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Luther Strange of Alabama.

By Sunday, President Trump doubled down, saying through Twitter, “If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast.”

In a second tweet, he wrote that the “league should back” fans who are upset about the protests.

The president’s remarks touched off protests by dozens of NFL players, coaches and even some owners at games on Sunday and Monday, along with criticism from many corners of the sports world.

There were scenes of players kneeling with arms locked on the field and of teams staying in locker rooms during the playing of national anthem. The reaction also included an array of disapproving comments, including from NFL owners who know President Trump and had generously supported his 2016 presidential campaign.

Like Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos, Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia, wears a badge showing support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

Like Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos, Peter Norman, the silver medalist from Australia, wears a badge showing support for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected the president’s remarks as “divisive” and showing “an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players.”

“The childishness, the gratuitous fear-mongering and race baiting has become so consistent that we almost expect it, the bar has been lowered so far,” Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs basketball team, told reporters in summing up a widespread view.

The president piled on by rescinding the customary White House invitation to the Golden State Warriors, the NBA champions, after their top star, Steph Curry, said he would not attend.

President Trump’s action drew scorn from the likes of LeBron James, regarded as the world’s best basketball player. Hitting back at the president’s slew of comments on pro athletes from the NFL and NBA, Mr. James said, “The people run the country, not one individual, and damn sure not him.”

Mr. James, a player for the Cleveland Cavaliers who has visited the White House in the past after winning an NBA championship, also told reporters that “going to the White House was a great honor until” President Trump took office.