WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump drew a rebuke from the National Football League on Thursday after he said football team owners are afraid of their players, his latest criticism of NFL players kneeling during the U.S. national anthem.
The Republican president told “Fox & Friends” in an interview broadcast on Thursday that he is friends with many NFL team owners and they were “in a box” over how to handle the kneeling protests of racial disparities in the country.
“They say, ‘We are in a situation where we have to do something.’ I think they’re afraid of their players, you want to know the truth. And I think it’s disgraceful,” he said. Trump did not elaborate on his comments.
The NFL rejected the president’s remarks as not factual.
“There was a statement that our owners are afraid of our players and that owners requested intervention by one of our political leaders to pick this issue off. Those statements are not accurate,” the NFL’s chief spokesman, Joe Lockhart, said in a conference call with reporters.
Lockhart, a White House spokesman for Democratic President Bill Clinton, defended NFL players as patriots. “This issue has very much been overtaken by political forces here, and one of the impacts of that is to distort the views of the NFL, our league, and particularly, our players,” he said.
Most team owners are billionaire white men, while 70 percent of players are African-American.
The top Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, did not address Trump’s latest comment on Thursday but said he believed NFL players’ decision to kneel while the national anthem played at games was misguided.
“Clearly, people have a right to express themselves,” Ryan said. But doing so in front of the U.S. flag, “looks like you’re protesting against the ideals of America. ... I think it’s misguided.”
The president first denounced the symbolic gesture on Friday, telling a political rally in Alabama that any protesting player was a “son of a bitch” who should be fired, and urged a boycott of NFL games.
Trump has beaten back questions about whether his focus on the NFL protests took his attention away from a host of crises, including hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico and tensions with North Korea.
While Trump’s verbal assault has likely appealed to his conservative base, it has drawn widespread criticism, including from the NFL’s commissioner, Roger Goodell. Many players and owners kneeled, stood with locked arms or stayed off the field altogether in response to the president’s comments.
Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election, called Trump’s comments “a huge, loud dog whistle to his supporters” in an interview with CBS earlier this week.
The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, expressed “disgust” with the president’s handling of race relations in a letter on Wednesday that also condemned his “calculated, divisive” response to the NFL protests.
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, said on Thursday that Trump’s NFL comments were “beneath the dignity of his office.”
Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Additional reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Susan Heavey, Makini Brice in Washington, Editing by Jonathan Oatis