By James Oliphant and Valerie Volcovici
SOMERSET, N.J.,/WASHINGTON (Reuters) - NFL teams staged a show of solidarity with protesting players before Sunday's games by kneeling, linking arms or staying off the field during the U.S. national anthem, defying President Donald Trump's call for owners to fire those who refuse to stand.
Along the sidelines of National Football League games across the country and in London, coaches, support staff and even some owners joined team members in a silent response to Trump's weekend denunciation of players who kneel during the anthem as unpatriotic.
In a gesture initiated last season by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, several NFL players have routinely "taken one knee" during the playing of the anthem. It is intended to call attention to what the protesting players see as a pattern of racism in the treatment of African-Americans by U.S. police.
In Detroit, several members of the Lions knelt while singer Rico Lavelle dropped to one knee and pumped a fist in the air at the end of his performance of the "Star-Spangled Banner."
In Philadelphia, city police officers joined with Eagles and New York Giants players and Eagles team owner Jeffrey Lurie to link arms during the anthem in a sign of solidarity.
While some Americans are sympathetic to the protesters, others see the refusal to stand as a sign of disrespect for the flag and for members of the military who have sacrificed or died in defending the country.
Trump rekindled the controversy on Friday at an Alabama political rally in which he suggested any protesting player was a "son of a bitch" and urged owners to dismiss them on the spot, reprising his reality-show catch phrase: "You're fired."
The theme could play well with Trump's conservative base at a time when the Republican president is grappling with North Korea's nuclear threats, an investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and a healthcare struggle in Congress.
But Trump's stance appeared to galvanize players, teams and the league to assert what they see as a right to express their political convictions freely. It also highlighted the deep political rift that Trump's election has exposed across many segments of American society.
New England Patriots Chairman and Chief Executive Robert Kraft, who has dined with Trump and whom the president considers a friend, criticized Trump on Sunday and defended players' right to protest.
"I am deeply disappointed by the tone of the comments made by the president on Friday," Kraft said in a statement. He said players had a "right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner they feel is most impactful."
Despite a strong rebuke of his remarks by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the players' union on Saturday, the president did not back down on Sunday, calling on fans to boycott the league if it would not discipline protesting players.
"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you will see change take place fast," Trump wrote on Twitter. "Fire or suspend!"
In another tweet, Trump, who spent the weekend at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, said that the "league should back" fans who are upset about the protests.
In Chicago, Trump's feud was the main topic of conversation at the South Loop Club sports bar.
"This is a First Amendment issue and the president is supposed to uphold that right," said Sam Cunningham, 55, who was watching the Pittsburgh-Chicago game with his wife. "He should know better than anyone that to fire someone because of their opinion is not right."
One patron at a sports bar in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, Trump supporter Tim Kull, 67, said: "Do it on your time, not when you are wearing that uniform."
GESTURE BY TOM BRADY
In Foxboro, Massachusetts, more than a dozen players and coaches on the Super Bowl champion Patriots knelt or linked arms, including quarterback Tom Brady, whom Trump name-dropped as a friend on the campaign trail. Brady placed one hand on his chest and used the other to link arms with his teammates.
Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan linked arms with team players in solidarity at the game against the Baltimore Ravens in London's Wembley Stadium. Khan donated $1 million to the Trump inauguration fund.
Robert McNair, chairman of the Houston Texans, said Trump's comments were "divisive and counterproductive to what our country needs right now." McNair also donated $1 million to Trump.
Other teams decided to stay off the field during the anthem. Before the Seattle Seahawks game against the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, neither team came out until after the pre-game ceremony.
Except for a single player, the Pittsburgh Steelers remained off the field in Chicago before their game against the Bears to avoid "playing politics," head coach Mike Tomlin said. The team was roundly booed by the home crowd when it finally emerged.
The demonstrations along the sidelines ahead of Sunday's early game triggered a fresh round of tweets by the president.
"Great solidarity for our National Anthem and for our Country. Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!" he wrote.
NBA PLAYERS RESPOND
National Basketball Association players also struck back against comments by the president on Saturday after Trump clashed with one of the biggest stars in the league, Stephen Curry.
Then on Saturday evening, Oakland As rookie Bruce Maxwell became the first Major League Baseball player to kneel for the national anthem in protest.
In a Twitter message, Trump rescinded a White House invitation to Curry, who had said he would "vote" against the planned visit by the NBA champion Golden State Warriors.
Curry told a news conference in Oakland, California: "It's beneath the leader of a country to go that route."
In a tweet on Sunday, Trump said the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which won the Stanley Cup, accepted his invitation to the White House. "Great team!" he wrote.
(Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Jonathan Allen, Jarrett Renshaw, Bernie Woodall, Petr Schroeder and Robert Chiarito; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)