President Donald Trump offered his latest critique Wednesday evening of the protests NFL players have been staging, saying that Colin Kaepernick, the ex-49ers quarterback who was the first to kneel during the national anthem last year, would never have continued to do so if he had been “suspended” by the league.
“I watched Colin Kaepernick, and I thought it was terrible, and then it got bigger and bigger and started mushrooming, and frankly the NFL should have suspended him for one game, and he would have never done it again,” Trump told Fox News’s Sean Hannity in an interview conducted before an audience at the Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Air National Guard Base. “They could have then suspended him for two games, and they could have suspended him if he did it a third time, for the season, and you would never have had a problem.
“But I will tell you,” the president continued, “you cannot disrespect our country, our flag, our anthem - you cannot do that.”
Earlier in the day, Trump tweeted, “It is about time that Roger Goodell of the NFL is finally demanding that all players STAND for our great National Anthem - RESPECT OUR COUNTRY.” The NFL commissioner had said Tuesday in a letter to team presidents and chief executives that “we believe that everyone should stand for the national anthem,” adding, “We need to move past this controversy, and we want to do that together with our players.”
After Trump’s tweet, though, the NFL provided a statement to The Washington Post in which it said, “Commentary this morning about the Commissioner’s position on the Anthem is not accurate. As we said yesterday, there will be a discussion of these issues at the owners meeting next week.”
The league’s annual owners meeting has been scheduled for next Tuesday and Wednesday, and the issue of player protests will be high on the agenda. Kaepernick’s example was emulated by some other NFL players last year, and a few more at the start if this season, but over 200 took a knee during the anthem last month after Trump sharply criticized the protests, using the phrase, “son of a bitch.”
Many NFL teams issued statements objecting to the president’s comments, and some owners joined their players in linking arms while standing during the anthem. Ahead of a game at the host Arizona Cardinals, Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined his team in taking a knee on the field before the anthem, then they rose and stood with arms linked as the song played.
However, last weekend saw far fewer anthem protests, amid reports that several teams were telling their players to stand. Jones said Sunday that he would bench any Cowboys player who did not stand for the anthem, with Dolphins owner Stephen Ross asserting, “I think it’s incumbent upon players today, if that’s how the public is looking at it, is to stand and salute the flag.”
Jones subsequently claimed that Trump had “reminded” him in a phone conversation of the NFL’s policy on conduct during the anthem. In turn, Trump praised the owner, saying on Twitter, “A big salute to Jerry Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, who will BENCH players who disrespect our Flag. ‘Stand for Anthem or sit for game!’ “
The NFL does not have a policy prohibiting players from kneeling or sitting during pregame renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The league’s game operations manual says that “all players must be on the sideline” for the song and that they “should stand at attention, face the flag, hold helmets in their left hand and refrain from talking.”
“It doesn’t say the players must stand,” Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications and public affairs, recently noted of the policy. “It says the players should stand.”
A joint statement issued Wednesday by the NFL and its players’ union said, “There has been no change in the current policy regarding the anthem.” NFL Players Association Executive Director DeMaurice Smith will attend the owners meetings next week to try to come to an agreement on any possible policy changes.
If Goodell had wanted to suspend Kaepernick, he would not have had a rule violation to cite, but the league’s collective bargaining agreement does give the commissioner broad powers to impose punishments “for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.” Those powers were ultimately upheld in the long-running Deflategate saga, in which New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was made to serve a four-game suspension, but Goodell and the league have also taken some courtroom losses and likely have no appetite to antagonize players, as well as some fans, by unilaterally issuing suspensions for anthem protests.
For Kaepernick’s part, the free agent quarterback, whose inability to sign with an NFL team has widely been ascribed to his social activism, retweeted a post Wednesday critical of the president. The post quoted and contained an audio clip of Ameer Hasan Loggins, a doctoral candidate in African Diaspora Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, saying that Trump “invested in the USFL [in the 1980s] to try to overthrow the NFL.”
Trump tried to purchase the Buffalo Bills in 2014 but, as Loggins put it in the clip retweeted by Kaepernick, “those same billionaires that he calls his friends voted not to let him into their club.” According to Loggins, “it’s very much so in line with his God complex and his narcissism” that Trump now wants to use his power to tell NFL owners how to run their league, but the scholar noted that the owners had joined in demonstrations with their players “to unify against what Donald Trump said.”