The President, NFL commissioner and top basketball players are embroiled in a public fight over patriotism
Trump's tweets and harsh reaction highlight an extraordinary moment
President Donald Trump came under harsh criticism Saturday from the NFL and some of the NBA’s top players after he blasted prominent athletes for kneeling during the national anthem and refusing to come to the White House, putting himself in the center of a controversy with significant racial and cultural undertones.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell slammed Trump in a statement Saturday morning, calling the President “divisive” for remarks he made at a rally in Alabama Friday night, while one of the most famous athletes in the world, LeBron James, called Trump a “bum” for his Saturday morning tweet uninviting Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry from visiting the White House.
The Golden State Warriors issued a statement later Saturday accepting Trump’s dis-invitation.
“While we intended to meet as a team at the first opportunity we had this morning to collaboratively discuss a potential visit to the White House, we accept that President Trump has made it clear that we are not invited,” the team said.
The statement added that while the team will not be visiting the White House, its players will still come to the nation’s capital in February “to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.”
Former Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant also tweeted a rebuke of Trump.
“A #POTUS whose name alone creates division and anger. Whose words inspire dissension and hatred can’t possibly ‘Make America Great Again,’” Bryant wrote.
Trump’s Twitter response
Trump responded to the criticisms Saturday in a series of tweets, saying that playing for a sports league is a “privilege” and that players should not be able to disrespect the American flag or the US without risking being “fired.”
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect ….” Trump tweeted. “Our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Later, he added of Goodell’s criticism: “Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country. Tell them to stand!”
The President’s Twitter posts continued Sunday morning, saying if fans stayed away from the games because of the players’ protests, “you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!”
Trump then focused on recent attendance at some NFL games and said ratings were “way down.”
“Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.,” he tweeted.
Trump’s tweets and harsh reaction highlight an extraordinary moment – the President, NFL commissioner and top basketball players embroiled in a public fight over unity and patriotism.
Goodell said Trump’s criticism of NFL players kneeling in protest during the National Anthem showed a “lack of respect” for the league and its players.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Goodell said in the statement. “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities.”
New York Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch called Trump’s NFL comments “inappropriate” on Saturday.
“Comments like we heard last night from the president are inappropriate, offensive and divisive,” their statement said. “We are proud of our players, the vast majority of whom use their NFL platform to make a positive difference in our society.”
Several team owners expressed similar comments.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a friend of Trump’s, said he was “deeply disappointed by the tone “ of Trump’s remarks at the Friday night rally.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said in a statement Sunday. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said the country needed “unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness.”
“I know our players who kneeled for the anthem and these are smart young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone,” Ross said in a statement Saturday.
“We all have the responsibility to use this platform to promote understanding, respect and equality,” he added.
San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York called Trump’s remarks “callous and offensive” and “contradictory to what this great country stands for.”
“Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice,” York said in a statement Saturday. “We will continue to support them in their peaceful pursuit of positive change in our country and around the world.”
Trump’s remarks at rally
At Alabama GOP Sen. Luther Strange’s campaign rally Friday, Trump said team owners should fire players for taking a knee during the national anthem. He added that if fans would “leave the stadium” when players kneel in protest during the national anthem, “I guarantee, things will stop.”
Trump appeared to be referring to Colin Kaepernick – formerly with the San Francisco 49ers, but currently without a team – who last year drew national attention for refusing to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner” prior to kickoff.
“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in August 2016.
Then, on Saturday morning, Trump tweeted that Curry’s invitation to the White House was revoked.
“Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump wrote.
Curry had remarked at the Warriors’ media day Friday that he doesn’t want to attend the White House ceremony scheduled to commemorate the title.
“‘By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to,” Curry told reporters. ”It’s not just the act of not going. There are things you have to do on the back end to actually push that message into motion.”
Athletes, entertainers respond
James was among the first athletes to respond to Trump on Saturday.
“U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going!” James tweeted. “So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
Many of the reactions to Trump’s tweets highlighted the underlying racial tensions some consider at issue.
ESPN anchor Jemele Hill tweeted to Curry, “Hey @StephenCurry30, welcome to the club bro.”
Last week, Trump demanded an apology on Twitter for a series of tweets Hill had sent describing Trump as a white supremacist. Later White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said on Fox News that Hill’s tweets were “highly inappropriate, and I think ESPN should take actions.”
Singer-songwriter John Legend also tweeted about Trump Saturday saying of Curry’s decision, “Perhaps it’s not a great honor while your stench is there.’
Legend continued with a series of tweets aimed at the President.
“Trump thrives on division and chaos. He wants to pit us against each other because he thinks his side can win (w/voter suppression, etc.),” Legend tweeted later in the afternoon.
In a video released Saturday afternoon, music producer and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs called for members of the NFL to do something “really great” on Sunday, when most of the week’s football games will be played. He added: “You all represent us.”
“If you do whatever you do in unity, you can’t be stopped,” Combs said in the video. “Just do the math man. Stick together, stand up together, rally for each other. Because believe me, we’re all we got – it has nothing to do with football and business.”
Combs later tweeted from his personal account, “THE LINE HAS BEEN CROSSED!!!! Time to show them #blackexcellence LETS GO! #teamlove REPRESENT REPRESENT!”
He added a split photo that at the top showed white supremacists holding Confederate and Nazi flags under the words “very fine people” – a reference to Trump’s description of both white supremacist protesters and counterprotesters after the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, last month – and at the bottom three 49ers players taking a knee during the national anthem under the words “Sons of Bitches.”
Meanwhile, legendary musician Stevie Wonder took a knee at a New York music festival Saturday.
“Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America; but not just one knee, I’m taking both knees,” he said on stage before his performance at the Global Citizen Festival.
“Both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world and our globe. Amen.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on Trump’s tweet about Curry and whether the invitation will be withdrawn.
CNN’s Eric Bradner contributed to this report.