American football stars took a knee in defiance of Donald Trump at Wembley Stadium today after he said sportsmen who ‘disrespect America’ should be ‘fired’.
Players from both Jacksonville Jaguars and the Baltimore Ravens dropped to their knees as the national anthem was played prior to the match in London.
No players were kneeling during the playing of ‘God Save The Queen’, which followed the Star Spangled Banner.
They did so after President Trump had stoked tensions by saying NFL players who protested during the national anthem should be sacked by their team.
At a rally on Friday night the president said: ‘Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bi*ch off the field right now… he is fired.’
He was referring to a controversial string of protests started by player Colin Kaepernick last year when he sat or kneeled during the anthem to highlight the treatment of black Americans.
Players on both teams and Jaguars owner Shad Khan, who were not kneeling, remained locked arm-in-arm throughout the playing of the national anthem and ‘God Save The Queen’.
Khan, who also owns Championship football club Fulham, has previously donated one million US dollars to Trump’s presidential inauguration.
Shortly after the contest got under way at Wembley, the Ravens posted a message on Twitter which read: ‘We recognise our players’ influence. We respect their demonstration and support them 100 per cent. All voices need to be heard. That’s democracy in its highest form.’
The Jaguars tweeted a photo of Khan standing, arm in arm with Lewis and Smith, with the caption ‘Unity’.
At a rally in Alabama on Friday night, Trump had delivered a scathing attack on NFL players who opt to kneel in protest when the Star-Spangled Banner is played prior to matches.
He claimed team owners should sack any player involved in such a demonstration and that fans should leave the stadium if they see it.
There was a fiery response from the NFL to Trump’s controversial comments.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a statement saying ‘divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect’.
The NFL Players’ Association said Trump had crossed a line by effectively telling players to just ‘shut up and play’.
Association president Eric Winston said Trump’s comments were ‘a slap in the face to the civil rights heroes of the past and present’.
This has included high-profile players such as Colin Kaepernick, Michael Bennett and Marshawn Lynch.
Kaepernick, who remains unemployed despite leading a team to the Super Bowl at the end of the 2012 season, was the first to protest over perceived racial injustice and police brutality.
On Saturday night, the Oakland Athletics’ Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel in protest during the national anthem.
Trump’s comments drew sharp condemnation from some of the nation’s top athletes with basketball star LeBron James calling the president a ‘bum’.
James also released a video on Saturday, saying Trump has tried to divide the country.
‘He’s now using sports as the platform to try to divide us,’ James said. ‘We all know how much sports brings us together…it’s not something I can be quiet about.’
Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy went further, describing Trump as an ‘a**hole’.
Kaepernick’s mother, Teresa, also joined in the backlash, referencing Trump’s ‘son of a bi*ch’ comment and tweeting: ‘Guess that makes me a proud bi*ch!’
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a personal friend of President Trump, responded in forthright fashion.
‘I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the President on Friday,’ he said. ‘There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal.’
NFL star Tom Brady wrote on Instagram this morning: ‘Strength. Passion. Love. Brotherhood. Team. Unity. Commitment. Dedication. Determination. Respect. Loyalty. Work.’
Trump started by announcing that NBA champion Stephen Curry, the two-time MVP for the Golden State Warriors, would not be welcome at the White House for the commemorative visit traditionally made by championship teams.
He said: ‘Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!’
Later Trump reiterated what he said at a rally in Alabama the previous night – that NFL players who kneel for the national anthem should be fired, and called on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to tell them to stand.
He stepped up his rhetoric today, urging fans to boycott NFL games as way of making change ‘take place fast’.
Trump, who is spending the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, added: ‘NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.’
The Golden State Warriors said the team had clearly understood ‘that we are not invited’ to the White House but would visit Washington DC on its own ‘to celebrate equality, diversity, and inclusion’.
John F Kennedy was the first president to host the NBA champions, when the Boston Celtics visited in January 1963. The visit became an annual occurrence under Ronald Reagan. Golden State visited Barack Obama after winning the title in 2015.
Separately, 2017 college basketball champions the North Carolina Tar Heels announced they, too, would not be going to the White House to celebrate their victory, despite being invited.