President Donald Trump criticized NFL players who lodge protests during the pregame national anthem, saying Friday night that he wished those players would be released. He also encouraged fans who are offended to walk out of stadiums.
Speaking at a political rally in Huntsville, Alabama, 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 b---- off the field right now. Out. He's fired! He's fired!'"
Trump said the protests are "hurting the game." Trump also said referees are "ruining the game" by calling 15-yard penalties for "beautiful" tackles.
The NFL responded Saturday with a statement from commissioner Roger Goodell.
"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 for 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," the statement said.
Throughout the day Saturday, several NFL owners weighed in with statements condemning Trump's remarks.
Giants owners John Mara and Steve Tisch called the comments "inappropriate, offensive and divisive" and 49ers CEO Jed York called them "callous" and "contradictory to what this great country stands for." Dolphins owner Stephen Ross said: "Our country needs unifying leadership right now, not more divisiveness. We need to seek to understand each other and have civil discourse instead of condemnation and sound bites. I know our players who kneeled for the anthem and these are smart young men of character who want to make our world a better place for everyone. They wanted to start a conversation and are making a difference in our community, including working with law enforcement to bring people together. We all can benefit from learning, listening and respecting each other."
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith also issued a statement Saturday morning in response to Trump's comments.
"Whether or not Roger and the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen," Smith said. "This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks."
The NFLPA released an expanded statement later Saturday morning, saying that it makes "no apologies" for protecting the rights of its members, which includes freedom of speech.
"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," it said. "No man or woman should ever have to choose a job that forces them to surrender their rights."
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick, then with the San Francisco 49ers, began the wave of protests in the NFL when he sat during the national anthem before a preseason game in August 2016. During the regular season, Kaepernick modified his protest of social injustice and knelt during the anthem.
Trump didn't mention Kaepernick or any other NFL player specifically during his Friday speech. Earlier this year, Trump took credit for the fact that Kaepernick hadn't been signed.
Kaepernick opted out of his contract with the 49ers during the offseason. He has not been signed by a new team since then. Several players have continued to protest during the anthem this season.
"The only thing you could do better," Trump said Friday, "is if you see it, even if it's just one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway."
Trump went on to say that NFL ratings are down "massively, massively," because people prefer watching him. NFL ratings dropped 8 percent in 2016 compared with 2015.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.