By KEN BELSON and JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS
© 2017 New York Times News Service
President Donald Trump took aim at two of the world’s most powerful sports leagues and some of their most popular athletes, directly inserting himself into a fiery debate about race, social justice and the role athletes play in highlighting those issues.
Trump’s comments, made at a campaign rally Friday and on social media Saturday, drew a swift and unusually strong rebuke from the NFL, which has done more than most leagues in wrapping itself in the American flag, as well as the players’ union. Scores of football and basketball players, including LeBron James, perhaps the best known athlete in the country, took to social media to lambaste the president.
“Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” James wrote on Twitter.
Trump’s outbursts against athletes and their leagues came as he was smarting from yet another setback in his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and as he worked to stoke enthusiasm among his core supporters in the deeply conservative state of Alabama, where he attended a campaign rally for Sen. Luther Strange, who many of them regard as an establishment Republican unworthy of their backing.
On Friday night, Trump said: “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 president said at the rally for Strange.
He said the protests would stop if fans left games when players did not stand for the anthem.
In an unusually strong rebuke of the president Saturday, Roger Goodell, commissioner of the league, in which a majority of the owners are Republican, said the president failed to understand how the league and its players work together to “create a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”