NEW YORK (Reuters) – President Donald Trump and the sports world engaged in an intensifying spat on Saturday after he called for National Football League owners to fire players who protest during the U.S. national anthem and disinvited a National Basketball Association star from a White House visit.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Saturday that Trump’s statements revealed “unfortunate lack of respect” for the NFL and its players.
Goodell’s statement was released a day after Trump suggested any protesting football player was a “son of a bitch” and should lose his job.
“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… He is fired,” Trump said on Friday at a rally for Alabama Senate Republican candidate Luther Strange.
Later on Saturday, Trump said in Twitter messages, that if NFL players wanted “the privilege” of high salaries they “should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU‘RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stirred a polarizing national debate in 2016 after refusing to stand during pre-game renditions of the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest police violence against African-Americans. Several players have made similar gestures of protest before games since Kaepernick initiated his protest.
As commissioner, Goodell reports to NFL owners, some of whom have supported Trump in the past. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a major Trump presidential campaign donor, was confirmed by the Senate last month as Trump’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Britain.
The union representing professional football players also rejected Trump’s comments, saying it would defend their right to freedom of expression.
“This union will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens,” tweeted DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, referring to the First Amendment’s guarantee of the right to free speech.
The White House could not be reached immediately to comment on the statements by Goodell or the union.
NBA players also struck back against comments by the president on Saturday.
Protesting football players were not the only professional athletes targeted by Trump in recent days.
In an early morning Twitter message on Saturday, the president rescinded a White House invitation to basketball star Stephen Curry, who had said he would “vote” against the planned visit by the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Trump said “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Trump tweeted.
The Golden State Warriors said in a statement that the team had intended to meet to discuss the potential visit at the first opportunity on Saturday morning.
“We accept that President Trump has made it clear that we are not invited,” the team said.
LeBron James came to Curry’s defense, disputing Trump’s assertion that visiting the White House was an honor.
“Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” James, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections, said on Twitter.
Reporting by Joel Schectman and Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Mary Milliken