President Donald Trump's comments about owners firing players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a mass increase in such protests around the National Football League Sunday, as more than 130 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance during early games.
A week ago, just four players didn't stand and two raised their fists.
Defensive star Von Miller was among the majority of Denver Broncos who took a knee in Buffalo Sunday, where Bills running back LeSean McCoy stretched during the "Star Spangled Banner." In Chicago, the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the tunnel except for one player, Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside with a hand over his heart. Tom Brady was among the New England Patriots who locked arms in solidarity in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
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The president's comments turned the anthems — usually sung during commercials — into must-watch television shown live by the networks and Yahoo!, which streamed the game in London. In some NFL stadiums, crowds booed or yelled at players to stand. There was also some applause.
NFL players, coaches, owners and executives used the anthems to show solidarity in their defiance to Trump's criticism.
In Detroit, anthem singer Rico Lavelle took a knee at the word "brave," lowering his head and raising his right fist into the air.
Jets Chairman and CEO Christopher Johnson, whose brother, Woody, is the ambassador to England and one of Trump's most ardent supporters, called it "an honor and a privilege to stand arm-in-arm unified with our players during today's national anthem" in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
The issue reverberated across the Atlantic, where about two dozen players, including Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs and Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette, took a knee during the playing of the U.S. anthem at Wembley Stadium.
"We stand with our brothers," Suggs said. "They have the right and we knelt with them today. To protest, non-violent protest, is as American as it gets, so we knelt with them today to let them know that we're a unified front. There ain't no dividing us. I guess we're all son-of-a-bitches."
Jaguars owner Shad Khan and players on both teams who were not kneeling remained locked arm-in-arm throughout the playing of the anthem and "God Save The Queen." No players were knelt during the British anthem.
Trump saw the arm-in-arm gestures as a victory . Among his latest tweets on the top Sunday was this: "Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!"
A handful of NFL players have refused to stand during the anthem to protest several issues, including police brutality. But that number ballooned Sunday following Trump's two-day weekend rant that began with the president calling for NFL protesters to be fired and continued Saturday with the president rescinding a White House invitation for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors over star Stephen Curry's criticism of Trump.
The movement started more than a year ago when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Collin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem as a protest of police treatment of racial minorities. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.
A handful of Miami Dolphins players wore black T-shirts supporting Kaepernick during pregame warm-ups. The shirts have "#IMWITHKAP" written in bold white lettering on the front.
Trump's targeting of top professional athletes in football and basketball brought swift condemnation from executives and players in the National Football League and the National Basketball Association.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin defended Trump's attacks Sunday, saying on ABC's "This Week" that the president thinks "owners should have a rule that players should have to stand in respect for the national anthem." Mnuchin added that "they can do free speech on their own time."
The National Hockey League's reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins announced Sunday they've accepted a White House invitation from Trump. The Penguins said they respect the office of the president and "the long tradition of championship team visiting the White House."
"Any agreement or disagreement with a president's politics, policies or agenda can be expressed in other ways," the Penguins said. "However, we very much respect the rights of other individuals and groups to express themselves as they see fit."
Before Game 1 of the WNBA Finals in Minneapolis on Sunday, the Los Angeles Sparks left the floor while the Minnesota Lynx stood arm-in-arm. The Sparks returned to a chorus of boos when the song was finished.
Sports hasn't been immune from America's deep political rifts, but the president's delving into the NFL protests started by Kaepernick brought new attention to the issues.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired,'" Trump said to loud applause Friday night at a rally in Huntsville, Alabama.
"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!" Trump said in a Sunday morning tweet.
Trump also mocked the league's crackdown on illegal hits, suggesting the league had softened because of its safety initiatives, which stem from an increased awareness of the devastating effects of repeated hits to the head.
Kahn, who was among the NFL owners who chipped in $1 million to the Trump inauguration committee, said he met with his team captains before kickoff in London "to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump."
Trump's comments drew sharp responses from some of the nation's top athletes, with LeBron James calling the president a "bum." Hours later, Major League Baseball saw its first player take a knee during the national anthem.
The NFL its players, often at odds, have been united in condemning the president's criticisms.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who's been a strong supporter of the president, expressed "deep disappointment" with Trump.
© 2020 Associated Press