Barely a day after bashing two prominent athletes for their outspoken social stances, President Donald Trump on Sunday called for fans to demonstrate their own form of protest – by boycotting NFL games unless the league fires players who kneel during the national anthem.
Trump's message came through loud and clear in an early morning Twitter post: "Fire or suspend!"— using language that was less salty than what he uttered at a Friday night rally in Alabama, but no less pointed.
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Trump said the protests were 'very disrespectful to the flag," and that owners should do something about them. He insisted that his position was "not about race," even as much of the criticism directed at him carried racial overtones.
All around the NFL on Sunday, however, the responses to Trump's stance came in rapid succession and surprising uniformity – and put teams that are usually rivals squarely in the same camp.
For league owners and executives, some of whom donated to Trump's bid for the presidency, the rebuke of his stance was unmistakable, and momentarily closed the emotional gulf that frequently separates the NFL's brass from the athletes who take the field every week.
In Alabama on Friday, Trump used colorful language to demand that NFL owners banish on-field protests, which many took as a veiled reference to Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback who started the on-field kneeling. On Saturday, Trump took aim at Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry for refusing an invitation to the White House.
On Sunday, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft declared himself "deeply disappointed by [Trump's] tone," adding that "our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal." Kraft is one of Trump's prominent backers and a personal friend who donated $1 million to his 2016 campaign, according to FEC data.
Trump told reporters on Sunday that the on-field activism was "very disrespectful to country. I like Bob [Kraft] very much. He gave me a football ring, I want him to do what he wants to do."
That said, "We have great country with great people [that] should be treated with respect," Trump added.
Stan Kroenke, the chairman and owner of the Los Angeles Rams, said that while the team believed the national anthem was "a pillar of this country," it would back the displays of free speech being expressed peacefully on field.
"We will continue to support our players' freedom to peacefully express themselves and the meaningful efforts they make to bring about positive change in our country," Kroenke added.
Not all of the response to the mass protest was favorable. Derek Wolfe, a defensive end for the Denver Broncos, called the kneeling "disrespectful to the ones who sacrificed their lives and its maybe the wrong platform."
He called America "the greatest country in the world," and pointedly asked the protesters: "If you don't think we are the greatest country in the world and you reside here, then why do you stay?"
Still left unclear was how the divisions would impact what the NFL prizes above all else: Its multi-billion dollar brand and television ratings, which have taken a dive since the season began three weeks ago. While some fans have protested Kaepernick's inability to find a new team, other viewers are clearly dismayed by how political activism has begun to overshadow the game itself.
The show of solidarity came early, as dozens of players Jacksonville Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens, both of whom were playing an exhibition game in London, refused to stand while the song played. Shad Khan, the Jaguars owner who was also a Trump donor, locked arms with his players and blasted the president's "divisive and contentious remarks" in a statement.
"Our team and the National Football League reflects our nation, with diversity coming in many forms – race, faith, our views and our goals," Khan said. "We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the president make it harder."
Just ahead of a 1pm Eastern kickoff, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Chicago Bears both released statements expressing support for the players and lamenting Trump's remarks.
Ahead of the face-off at Soldier Field, which gave the Bears their first win of the season in overtime, all but one of the Steelers team stayed in the locker room while the anthem was being played.
In fact, the outgrowth of Sunday's protests had the effect of bridging the normally wide gulf between NFL players and the owners and executives that exert wide influence over personnel decisions. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell – usually the target of NFL fans and athletes' ire – closed ranks with the owners and players.
Calling Trump's rhetoric "divisive," Goodell said in a statement the president's remarks were demonstrative of "an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in their communities."
— CNBC's Jessica Golden contributed to this article.
Correction: All but one of the Steelers team stayed in the locker room while the anthem was being played before the game against the Bears. An earlier version misstated the team's participation in the protest.