President Donald Trump probably didn’t realize he’d struck such a nerve with NFL players when he implored team owners to “get that son of a bitch off the field” for protesting during the national anthem.
The line drew loud applause at the president’s political rally in Huntsville, Alabama, but the words cut deep into America’s most popular sports league, where the majority of players are black and many of them grew up in tough neighbourhoods, raised by strong women.
“I’m a son of a queen,” an emotional Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett said.
“There are no SOBs in this league,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Sunday, when at least 200 NFL players either knelt, sat, stretched or prayed during the “Star Spangled Banner” to protest Trump’s remarks. Three teams didn’t even take the field until the national anthem was over.
The protest campaign that started last year with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was down to just six players last week. But Trump’s weekend attack on athletes sparked angry reactions from around the sports world and drew defiance from most of the NFL.
He suggested the NFL was going soft for cracking down on big hits. He uninvited the NBA champions Golden State Warriors to the White House after Stephen Curry and other players indicated they weren’t sure they would accept the invitation.
Players, owners and commissioners past and present chastised the president for his divisive remarks, but the angriest responses came from players upset that he’d insulted their mothers.
“Once again, this is a tragedy in this country that we have to sit here and still have these discussions,” Browns rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer said following a 31-28 loss to the Indianapolis Colts. “I know for a fact that I’m no son of a bitch, and I plan on continuing forward and doing whatever I can from my position to promote the equality that’s needed in this country.”
After calling for NFL players who protest to be fired, Trump tweeted Sunday that the league should make it mandatory to stand for the national anthem and that fans should shun anyone who doesn’t.
“It just amazes me with everything else going on in this world, especially involving the U.S., that’s what you’re concerned about, my man? You’re the leader of the free world and this is what you’re talking about?” said Dolphins safety Michael Thomas . “So, as a man, as a father, as an African-American man, as somebody in the NFL and one of those ‘sons of bitches,’ yeah, I took it personally.”
The issue reverberated across the Atlantic, where about two dozen players took a knee during the playing of the U.S. anthem at an NFL game between the Ravens and Jaguars in London.
“We stand with our brothers,” Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said. “They have the right, and we knelt with them today. To protest, non-violent protest, is as American as it gets, so we knelt with them today to let them know that we’re a unified front. There ain’t no dividing us. I guess we’re all son-of-a-bitches.”
Buccaneers wide receivers Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, who knelt at the Bucs-Vikings game, said Trump’s remarks were especially disturbing when juxtaposed to his recent comments equating white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, with counter-protesters.
“Why is he singling out athletes?” Evans asked. “I really don’t really see him tweeting about all the other things going on, the neo-Nazis, the situation in Charlottesville. I don’t really see him talking about that much. But he has the time and the nerve to call out the Golden State Warriors, Stephen Curry, all of us in the NFL that took a knee out of protesting. He has the time to do that? It’s not right.
“And he called us SOBs, so that was very disrespectful.”
Jackson said, “It’s just blatant disrespect. I look at it as my mom’s the queen. (We’re) not sons of any ‘B’s.”
Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said he’ll go back to standing for the anthem next week but was eager to join in the protests Sunday, noting that he supports the military, considers himself a patriot and loves his country.
He said he just wanted to show solidarity with his colleagues “especially in the backdrop of our president making the comments about our players, about their mothers. And then you put that in conjunction with how he tried to grey-area Nazism and KKK members as being fine people, I had to take a knee.”
Linebacker Brandon Marshall, who hands out winter coats in Denver alongside his mother as part of his charity work, said the Broncos gathered Saturday night to talk about their reaction.
“We talked about the fact that while he called the (white supremacists in) Charlottesville very fine people, but we are sons of bitches,” said Marshall, who received the 2017 Courage Award from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Alumni of Color for his stance against social injustice.
Marshall was a college teammate of Kaepernick, who remains unsigned. Many supporters believe teams are avoiding Kaepernick because of his protests.
On Sunday, some Dolphins players wore shirts supporting Kaepernick and even league owners and officials stood with players. Almost universally, owners and coaches criticized Trump’s comments.
“For me to single out any particular group of players and call them SOBs, to me, that is insulting and disgraceful,” Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. “So I think the players deserve credit for what they do. And when it comes to speech they are entitled to speak. And we are entitled to listen. We are entitled to agree or disagree. But we’re not entitled to shut anybody’s speech down.”
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AP Pro Football Writers Rob Maaddi, Teresa M. Walker and Dave Campbell and AP Sports Writers John Wawrow, Michael Marot and Berne Wilson contributed.