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Trump takes on Stephen Curry and Colin Kaepernick — and the sports world hits back

President Donald Trump.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images
President Donald Trump.

President Donald Trump's rescinding of a White House invitation to the Golden State Warriors opened a new fissure in the cultural wars on Saturday, touching off a war of words with between the president and a growing number of professional athletes.

Trump waded into a simmering debate on sports and free speech after he appeared to withdraw an invitation for the Warriors to visit the White House, and said National Football League (NFL) owners should fire players who openly protest by taking a knee on the field.

Trump's remarks stirred an already thorny national conversation about the dividing lines between politics, sports and race relations, with a number of sports figures using their celebrity to advance social justice causes. At a rally in Alabama on Friday, Trump sparked a firestorm on social media by suggesting NFL players who kneel during the national anthem should be fired by owners, and in doing so used salty language.

Green with teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson
Ezra Shaw | Getty Images
Green with teammates Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson

Although the Warriors have not yet received a formal invitation to the White House, Trump's post on Twitter came just a day after NBA All-Star Stephen Curry ruled out accepting it. Back in February, Curry burned Trump after the CEO of UnderArmour said having a pro-business president was an "asset" for the country.

Traditionally, championship-winning sports teams are asked to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for a photo-op with the president. In a series of early morning Twitter posts on Saturday, Trump called a visit to the White House "a great honor," and admonished Curry for his resistance.

It wasn't immediately clear whether the president was rescinding the invite for the entire Golden State Warriors team, or Curry specifically.

However, the Warriors released a statement in response, saying the team accepted that Trump "has made it clear that we are not invited. We're disappointed that we did not have an opportunity during this process to share our views or have open dialogue on issues impacting our communities that we felt would be important to raise."

Yet the verbal jousting rose to a new level after Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James called Trump a "bum" on Twitter, effectively supporting the man who vanquished him in the NBA Finals. During the 2106 election, James campaigned for former Democratic contender Hillary Clinton in Ohio.

Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul also took to Twitter to lash out at Trump, telling him to "stay in [his] lane." Separately, former Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant also weighed in by saying the president was creating "division and anger."

'You're fired!'

Eric Reid #35 and Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem
Michael Zagaris | San Francisco 49ers | Getty Images
Eric Reid #35 and Colin Kaepernick #7 of the San Francisco 49ers kneel on the sideline during the anthem

Playing in the background of the conflict with Curry was the NFL's on-field protests meant to draw attention to race relations.

Trump's statement in Alabama on Friday was interpreted by many to be a veiled reference to Colin Kaepernick, the free agent quarterback who took a knee in protest against police brutality while he was still playing for the San Francisco 49ers. Kaepernick's supporters argue that his protest is the main factor behind why he hasn't been acquired by another NFL team.

In a statement on Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared to side with protesting players. He responded by calling Trump's comments "divisive" and demonstrative of an "unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players," he said. Goodell also lamented "a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities."

DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, said in a statement on Saturday that the peaceful demonstrations "are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history."

Still, "the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just 'shut up and play,'" Smith said.

Since Kaepernick's show of defiance, a number of other NFL players have followed suit. The debate has overshadowed the start of football season, where ratings have tumbled sharply as some viewers protest teams' refusal to pick up Kaepernick, while others have opted to avoid the politicized displays.

--The Associated Press contributed to this article.