NFL

NFL spokesman to Trump: ‘This is what real locker room talk is’

Falcons owner Arthur Blank stood with his players during the national anthem Sunday. Rick Osentoski / AP

President Trump continued his attack on the NFL Monday, producing more tweets chastising the league and its players for demonstrations during the national anthem Sunday.

And the NFL attacked right back, rebuking the president for his remarks and saying the league fully supported the dozens of players who knelt during the national anthem, including 18 players on the Patriots.

“I’d say looking at yesterday, everyone should know — including the president — that this is what real locker room talk is,’’ said Joe Lockhart, NFL executive vice president of communications.

The remark by Lockhart — a reference to Trump’s controversial comments about women that surfaced during last year’s campaign — underscored the building support among players and teams in the NFL and other sports Monday in opposition to the president’s statements about players who refuse to stand during the national anthem.

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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in a paid appearance on WEEI, said he thought Trump’s remarks were “just divisive,’’ and Patriots coach Bill Belichick expressed his “immense respect’’ for Patriots players, though he stopped short of explicitly endorsing the decision to kneel during the anthem.

“I have coached football for over four decades and one of the greatest things about being in this environment is the diversity of people, backgrounds, viewpoints, and relationships we are fortunate to experience,’’ Belichick said in a statement.

On Monday, the White House defended Trump’s remarks.

“This isn’t about the president being against something,’’ press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said at her daily briefing. “This is about the president being for something. This is about the president being for respect in our country.’’

Last year, then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem to protest police treatment of African-Americans, but since then the issue has grown into a protest of Trump, support for players, racial equality, and an assertion of First Amendment rights.

This year, Kaepernick has not been picked up by any NFL team.

Player demonstrations during the anthem had mostly died down this season, until Trump began his assault against the NFL and players at a political rally Friday night in Alabama.

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“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,’ ’’ Trump said.

Since then, Trump has sent several tweets demanding that NFL players stand for the anthem.

The president said on Twitter on Monday that the issue is ‘‘about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!’’ He said it ‘‘has nothing to do with race.’’

 

A majority of NFL owners, many of whom supported Trump’s presidential bid, spoke out against Trump’s comments or in support of players over the weekend. Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan and Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank stood arm-in-arm with their players during the anthem.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a friend of Trump’s who donated $1 million to his inauguration fund, said in a statement Sunday that he is “deeply disappointed’’ in Trump’s comments.

“The way we reacted today, and this weekend, made me proud,’’ NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told MMQB.com. “They reflected the frustration, the disappointment, of the players over the divisive rhetoric we heard.’’

Lockhart, who was a communications director under former president Bill Clinton, said the NFL never intended to engage in a war of words with the White House but couldn’t sit idly while the president disrespected the league’s players.

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“When the president of the United States calls anyone a son of a bitch, that’s a story,’’ Lockhart said. “I think there was a strong sense late Friday night . . . that the president had thrown down the gauntlet, and that the media and our fans would be looking for how we would respond, and you saw it on Sunday.’’

Trump’s comments sparked unprecedented demonstrations by players on Sunday. Players on almost every team locked arms during the anthem, while wide swaths of players took a knee.

All of the Seahawks and Titans remained in the locker room during the anthem, while the Steelers did the same, except for left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan.

Though the NFL has a rule requiring players to be on the field for the national anthem, Lockhart said it will not pursue any punishment. He also said that the league will not consider discontinuing the playing of the national anthem before games.

“We think playing the national anthem before the game is an important part of our game, and we’re committed to playing it going forward,’’ he said.

Lockhart said he sympathized with NFL fans who were upset because they interpret
the demonstrations as being anti-police and anti-military — the Patriots players were roundly booed by fans at Gillette Stadium for taking a knee — but that supporting the players was more important.

The NFL holds a “Salute to Service’’ program each year that raises money for the USO, the Pat Tillman Foundation, and the Wounded Warrior Project, and most teams honor military on a weekly basis.

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“Here at the league, it’s no secret our respect for the military, the way we try to highlight patriotism,’’ Lockhart said. “But we also believe that our players have the right to express themselves.’’

Lockhart said that the NFL hasn’t gotten any backlash from its advertisers and business partners since the weekend. CBS announced Monday morning that its TV ratings were up 4 percent for Sunday’s games, compared with Week 3 last year.

Lockhart said the goal going forward is for the NFL to “move from protest to progress.’’

Several Patriots players said Sunday that they expect the demonstrations to be a one-time thing.

The controversy also drew in athletes from the NBA Monday.

LeBron James said at a news conference on Monday that Trump doesn’t understand how many kids are looking up to the president.

James said, ‘‘That’s what makes me more sick than anything.’’

He referred to Trump as ‘‘that guy’’ in remarks at Cleveland’s media day, and said the president ‘‘doesn’t understand the power that he has for being the leader of this beautiful country.’’

Wizards guard Bradley Beal called President Donald Trump a ‘‘clown’’ and said he’s ‘‘not a leader’’ for his tweets about Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors and his comments about NFL players kneeling or sitting during the national anthem.

Meanwhile, Trump lauded NASCAR on Monday for the lack of protests during the national anthem before a weekend race at New Hampshire Motorspeedway.

‘‘So proud of NASCAR and its supporters and fans. They won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag – they said it loud and clear!’’ Trump tweeted Monday.

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The NFL also took issue with Trump on the subject of player safety. At his rally in Alabama, Trump bemoaned the NFL’s new rules intended to take dangerous hits out of the game.

“You know today if you hit too hard: 15 yards! Throw him out of the game!’’ Trump said. “They’re ruining the game!’’

Lockhart said the league was appalled by these remarks.

“We fundamentally could not disagree more,’’ Lockhart said. “These remarks represent someone who’s out of touch and does really a great disservice by making them. We know we’re a contact sport and we recognize the risk of injury, but health and safety, as we say always, is our number one priority.’’

Though Trump has lobbed several barbs via Twitter, Lockhart said he has never attempted to speak directly to the league.

“If the president wants to engage in something positive and productive and constructive, he knows our number.’’