NFL players kneel and link arms during national anthem at Jaguars-Ravens game in London.
President Trump began Sunday on Twitter calling on NFL fans to boycott the sport to pressure team owners to discipline players who protest during the national anthem in order to draw attention to America’s racial and social issues.
But just hours later, as the “Star Spangled Banner” played at London’s Wembley Stadium, nearly all the players on the Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens — joined by Jags owner Shad Khan and former Ravens star Ray Lewis — either locked arms in a show of unity, or knelt like Colin Kaepernick as they joined a growing wave of sports stars to publicly defy the president.
The match was the first in the NFL’s series of international games, which is why kickoff was at 9:30 a.m. ET.
Players on many teams kneeled or linked arms in a show of solidarity with each other and opposition to Trump’s divisive comments. The Pittsburgh Steelers went a step further, announcing ahead of their match-up with the Chicago Bears that they would not leave their locker room for the national anthem — and they made good on that promise.
But symbolic opposition to the president’s statements did not end with the players.
Owners and executives from nearly 20 sports teams — representing football, basketball and even baseball organizations — declared support for players, called for unity and emphasized freedom of speech and expression in a series of statements.
“President Trump’s remarks were divisive and disrespectful to the entire NFL community, but we tried to use them as an opportunity to further unify our team and our organization, Buffalo Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula said in a statement. “Our players have the freedom to express themselves in a respectful and thoughtful manner and we all agreed that our sole message is to prove and to promote an environment that is focused on love and equality.”
Trump reportedly put in a $1 billion bid for the Buffalo Bills in 2014, and declared he would be the only buyer who would keep the team in Buffalo or produce a winning team, but he was beat by the Pegulas.
Rex Ryan, former head coach of the Buffalo Bills, said that he supported Trump during the election — even introducing him at a rally in Buffalo. But now, Ryan said he was “pi–ed off” and appalled by the president’s comments.
“Right away I’m associated with what Donald Trump stands for and all that because I introduced him,” Ryan said. “I never signed up for that, I never wanted that.”
New England Patriots Chairman and CEO Robert Kraft, who is also a longtime friend of Trump’s, said that he was “deeply disappointed” by the president’s comments on Friday. He said he was proud to be associated with the players who help build communities and relationships between people.
“There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics,” Kraft said. “I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.”
At the New England Patriots game against the Houston Texans, quarterback Tom Brady linked arms with his teammates
And in an unprecedented move, the very singer of the national anthem at the Detroit Lions-Atlanta Falcons game, Rico Lavelle, took a knee and raised a fist when he concluded the anthem.
The issue of players refusing to stand during the national anthem has been criticized by some people and groups. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick started the trend last year when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, amid a year that was marked by protests over police shootings of African-Americans.
Kaepernick, who took the Niners to the Super Bowl in 2013, remains an unsigned free agent amid the controversy.
Trump thrust the issue back into the spotlight at a rally on Friday night. In a freewheeling speech in Alabama, the president told the crowd, “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.'”
The comments, along with Trump’s withdrawal of an invitation to the White House for the NBA champion Golden State Warriors, sparked a backlash from some of the biggest names in professional sports.
Trump continued to tweet on the subject throughout the weekend, while a number of NFL owners have now come out to criticize the president’s remarks.