HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — President Donald Trump has some advice for National Football League owners: Fire players who kneel during the national anthem. He's also encouraging fans to walk out in protest.
And the president is bemoaning what he describes as a decline in violence in the sport.
"They're ruining the game," he said during a political rally in Alabama on Friday night that veered beyond politics.
Several athletes, including a handful of NFL players, have refused to stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest of the treatment of blacks by police. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the trend last year when he played for the San Francisco 49ers, hasn't been signed by an NFL team for this season.
Trump, who once owned the New Jersey Generals of the U.S. Football League, says those players are disrespecting the American flag and deserve to lose their jobs.
"That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for," Trump said, encouraging owners to act.
"Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired," Trump said to loud applause.
Trump also predicted that any owner who followed the presidential encouragement would become "the most popular person in this country" — at least for a week.
Trump, who was in Alabama campaigning for Sen. Luther Strange, also blamed a drop in NFL ratings on the nation's interest in "yours truly" as well as what he contended was a decline in violence in the game.
He said players are being thrown out for aggressive tackles, and it's "not the same game."
Over the past several seasons, the NFL and college football have increased penalties and enforcement for illegal hits to the head and for hitting defenseless players. A July report on 202 former football players found evidence of a debilitating brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them. The league has agreed to pay $1 billion to retired players who claimed it misled them about the concussion dangers of playing football.
During his campaign, Trump often expressed nostalgia for the "old days" — claiming, for example, that protesters at his rallies would have been carried out on stretchers back then. He recently suggested police officers should be rougher with criminals and shouldn't protect their heads when pushing them into squad cars.
It's also not the first time he's raised the kneeling issue. Earlier this year he took credit for the fact that Kaepernick hadn't been signed.
Television ratings for the NFL have been slipping since the beginning of the 2016 season. The league and observers have blamed a combination of factors, including competing coverage of last year's presidential election, more viewers dropping cable television, fans' discomfort with the reports of head trauma and the anthem protests.
Ratings have been down even more in the early 2017 season, though broadcasters and the league have blamed the hurricanes that hit Florida and Texas. Still, the NFL remains by far the most popular televised sport in the United States.
Trump said the anthem protest was the top reason NFL viewership had waned.
"You know what's hurting the game?" he asked. "When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem," he said.
Trump encouraged his supporters to pick up and leave the stadium next time they spot a player failing to stand.
"I guarantee things will stop," he said.
NFL players and others took to social media to express their anger toward President Trump, accusing him of preventing people from exercising their 1st Amendment rights.
The NFL released a statement Saturday morning, discussing Trump's "divisive" comments showing a lack of respect to the league.
"The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. 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 or 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," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement.
The NFLPA also released a statement Saturday that NFL players will not just "shut up and play" football and that they have the choice to do something about issues that impact them and their communities.
"The peaceful demonstrations by some of our players have generated a wide array of responses. Those opinions are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history. This expression of speech has generated thoughtful discussions in our locker rooms and in boardrooms. However, the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just ‘shut up and play.’
NFL players do incredible things to contribute to their communities. NFL players are a part of a legacy of athletes in all sports who throughout history chose to be informed about the issues that impact them and their communities. They chose- and still chose today- to do something about those issues rather than comfortably living in the bubble of sports. Their decision is no different from the one made by countless others who refused to let ‘what they do’ define or restrict ‘who they are’ as Americans.
No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces the to surrender their rights. No worker nor any athlete, professional or not, should be forced to become less than human when it comes to protecting their basic health and safety. We understand that our job as a Union is not to win a popularity contest and it comes with a duty to protect the rights of our members. For that we take no apologies and never will," said the NFLPA.