Los Angeles (AFP) - NFL team owners were sharply critical of US President Donald Trump during a private meeting with players at the height of last season's protest controversy, the New York Times reported on Thursday.
A leaked audio recording of a three-hour meeting between around 30 owners, players and league officials which took place in New York last October showed several team bosses voiced displeasure at Trump's conduct.
Robert Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots who is a long-time Trump friend and donor, accused the US president of "divisive and horrible" conduct.
Trump triggered uproar across the NFL last September when he described players who kneeled during the US national anthem to protest racial injustice as "sons of bitches."
The protests had been started by ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in 2016 following the deaths of several unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement.
Following Trump's criticism, a wave of protests swept the league, with many players kneeling in solidarity with Kaepernick, who has been unable to find a club since being released by the 49ers in early 2017.
During the October meeting, Kraft described the kneeling protests as "the elephant in the room", the Times reported.
"The problem we have is, we have a president who will use that as fodder to do his mission that I don't feel is in the best interests of America," Kraft said. "It's divisive and it's horrible."
Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie meanwhile said Trump's presidency was "disastrous."
"We've got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else," Lurie said. "We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited."
The subject of Kaepernick's career had been raised at the meeting by players who attended, but most owners were non-committal, the Times reported.
Eagles lineman Chris Long told owners that the crisis might have been defused if a team had signed Kaepernick. Most players believed he was being frozen out of the sport, Long said.
"If he was on a roster right now, all this negativeness and divisiveness could be turned into a positive," Long said.
"We all agree in this room as players that he should be on a roster."
Meanwhile Kaepernick's former team-mate Eric Reid, who was the first player to kneel alongside the quarterback, believed the 49ers star had been "hung out to dry."
"Everyone in here is talking about how much they support us," Reid told the meeting. "Nobody stepped up and said we support Colin's right to do this. We all let him become Public Enemy No.1 in this country, and he still doesn't have a job."