Tuesday 21 November 2017

Trump relishes war of words over sports stars' protests

Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel in protest during the national anthem at Wembley Stadium
Jacksonville Jaguars players kneel in protest during the national anthem at Wembley Stadium

Donald Trump's attacks on activist athletes have plunged the US president into the middle of his favourite kind of drama - personal, aggressive, culturally volatile, and entirely of his own making.

Mr Trump has drawn criticism from the worlds of politics and sport for saying that American football players who kneel during the US national anthem in protest over issues including police brutality against minorities should be "fired".

On Sunday, Mr Trump continued to defend his position, which prompted about 200 NFL players to stand, kneel or raise their fists during the national anthem at games.

The US leader told reporters in New Jersey that kneeling was "very disrespectful to our flag and to our country" and that "owners should do something".

Mr Trump also offered his own take on the players and coaches who chose to lock arms on the field during the anthem, describing it as a display of "solidarity" that he approved of.

He also defended himself against the suggestion that his critique could inflame racial tensions, arguing: "I never said anything about race."

There were widespread protests during Sunday's NFL matches, beginning with more than 20 players "taking a knee" at Wembley stadium in London before the Jacksonville Jaguars' victory over the Baltimore Ravens.

Back in the States, the anthem was played at Nissan Stadium in Tennessee with both the Titans and Seattle Seahawks squads remaining in the locker rooms.

Pittsburgh Steelers players remained in the tunnel prior to their game against the Chicago Bears, although Alejandro Villanueva, who served three tours in Afghanistan with the US Army, stood alone in front of it.

The protest has drawn support from the world of entertainment, with musician Stevie Wonder declaring at a concert in New York City's Central Park: "Tonight, I take a knee for America. Both knees!" as he knelt on stage.

In addition to attacks on NFL players, Mr Trump also rescinded a White House invitation for basketball player Stephen Curry, a star player on the NBA champion Golden State Warriors. Curry was backed by NBA star LeBron James, who called the US president a "bum" in a tweet backing his fellow player.

On Twitter on Sunday night, Mr Trump continued to press his case against politically charged athletes, saying: "sports fans should never condone players that do not stand proud for their National Anthem or their Country. NFL should change policy!"

Mr Trump remains confident that his supporters are strongly behind his attacks on kneeling players, a practice which started by a handful of players protesting against a number of issues, including police brutality against black people.

As criticism rolled in, supporters argued the president was not targeting African-Americans, but simply expressing patriotism.

"It's a perfect example of where the president gets it right," said Christopher Ruddy, the CEO of Newsmax and a longtime Trump friend, who said team officials and the news media were not in line with much of the country.

"It's a win for him at the end of the day."

Some allied groups were quick to take action, with the pro-Trump political non-profit America First Policies releasing a Facebook ad with the tagline: "Turn off the NFL".

Mr Trump has had a history of engaging in racially-fraught battles, from his promotion of the false story that the nation's first black president, Barack Obama was not born in the United States, to his campaign proposal to temporarily ban Muslims from the United States.

He drew condemnation last month for saying "both sides" were to blame for violence between white supremacists and their opposing demonstrators during clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Some Trump supporters distanced themselves this time, notably New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Kraft said he was "deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president".

He added that there is "nothing more divisive than politics" and said he supported players' "right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful".

Mr Trump shrugged off the comments, saying: "he's a good friend of mine and I what him to do what he wants to do."

Critics argued the president has waded into an unnecessary - and potentially damaging - battle.

The protests started more than a year ago when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the anthem as a protest over police treatment of minorities. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.

Mr Trump began his latest tirade during a raucous campaign rally in Huntsville, Alabama, on Friday evening before thousands of cheering fans.

Amid comments about a Senate candidate and his agenda, Mr Trump said: "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'?"

Mr Trump continued: "That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for, OK? Everything that we stand for."

AP

Press Association

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