The head of the NFL Players Association issued a sharply worded statement Saturday morning saying the union “will never back down” from supporting players' right to protest, an apparent response to President Donald Trump's comments at a rally Friday that national anthem protestors should be fired and also lamented efforts to make the game safer.
"We will never back down," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith tweeted early Saturday morning. "We no longer can afford to stick to sports."
Attached to the tweet was a statement that referenced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners: “Whether or not Roger and the owners will speak for themselves about their views on player rights and their commitment to player safety remains to be seen. This union, however, will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens as well as their safety as men who compete in a game that exposes them to great risks."
We will never back down. We no longer can afford to stick to sports. pic.twitter.com/Ec3Bc4qt9h
— DeMaurice Smith (@DeSmithNFLPA) September 23, 2017
The NFL responded some two hours later, in a statement from Goodell that called Trump's comments "divisive" but avoided the subject of player protests: "The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture. … Divisive comments like these demonstrate 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 our communities."
Goodell previously has voiced support of players' rights to protest and asked fans to respect those rights.
However, Trump told the Huntsville, Ala., crowd at a rally for a U.S. Senate candidate that NFL owners should fire players if they refuse to stand 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 b— off the field right now. He is fired.'"
Trump previously has attacked former 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem to protest the treatment of people of color in America.
Kaepernick's mother, Teresa, waded into the controversy, referring to Trump's comment, tweeting: "Guess that makes me a proud b—!"
During Friday's remarks Trump also accused NFL referees of “ruining the game” by penalizing players who “hit too hard.”
“Today, if you hit too hard …15 yards, throw him out of the game,” Trump said. “They are ruining the game, right?”