Donald Trump this weekend managed to unite NFL players and their embattled commissioner, pick a fight with the NBA and get called “U bum” by LeBron James — all over player activism, race and police brutality.
Trump ignited the firestorm late Friday when he called any NFL player who kneels in protest during the national anthem a “son of a bitch,” a group that in the past has included Miami Dolphins Michael Thomas, Kenny Stills and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Trump also rescinded Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry’s invitation to the White House, tweeting that “going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”
Curry, who often speaks out against Trump, said Friday he did not want to attend the White House ceremony for the Warriors, the 2016-17 NBA champs.
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With his words and tweets, Trump injected himself into the explosive debate in America over race, social justice and sports and the role athletes have in highlighting these divisive issues.
The NFL has long kept its causes non-partisan, but even it felt compelled to respond Saturday to Trump’s comments, first made at an Alabama political rally Friday night.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a statement. “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.”
Goodell continued: “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our community.”
Trump promptly responded, holding firm on his stance: “Roger Goodell of NFL just put out a statement trying to justify the total disrespect certain players show to our country. Tell them to stand!”
The controversy began late Friday, when appearing in a rally for Luther Strange, the Alabama U.S. senator in a primary election for the seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, Trump criticized the league, and players who kneel during the national anthem.
“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,’” Trump said. “‘He is fired.’”
That was a reference to Kaepernick, who set off a wave of player protests last year by first sitting, and then kneeling during the national anthem. Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to a Super Bowl, is now out of the league. Many argue his social activism is the reason why.
Trump also bemoaned changes to the rules designed to prevent head injuries, saying it’s “not the same game.”
And to ensure the debate continued Saturday, he doubled down on social media.
“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!
Then Trump proceeded to dis-invite the Warriors’ Curry to the White House ceremony to celebrate the team’s NBA championship, drawing the ire of ex-Miami Heat star LeBron James, who tweeted: “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
Trump’s tweets also drew the ire of the Golden State Warriors.
“While we intended to meet as a team … this morning to collaboratively discuss a potential visit to the White House, we accept that President Trump has made it clear that we are not invited. We believe there is nothing more American than our citizens having the right to express themselves freely on matters important to them,’’ the team said in a statement Saturday night.
“In lieu of a visit to the White House, we have decided that we’ll constructively use our trip to the nation’s capital in February to celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion — the values that we embrace as an organization.’’
Trump’s message was heard clearly inside the Dolphins locker room. Players privately and publicly vented.
Thomas’ response to Trump? A call to action.
“Continue to use your voices and your platforms for racial equality and to stop injustices in our communities,” Thomas said. “This is bigger than us!!!
Added Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry: “Man what is this world coming to. …We got to stick together.”
Stephen Ross, the Miami Dolphins owner and founder of the Ross Initiative in Sports for Equality, also commented late Saturday:
“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. Sports is a common denominator in our world. We all have the responsibility to use this platform to promote understanding, respect and equality.”