President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Friday.
Evan Vucci / AP
President Trump said Friday that NFL team owners should fire football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem, apparently in reference to Colin Kaepernick's protests last year in which he kneeled during the American flag ceremony.
Trump made the comments while speaking to a crowd in Huntsville, Alabama, in support of Sen. Luther Strange, a Republican facing a primary election next week. Midway through the rally, Trump asked the crowd if they'd "love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'get that son of a bitch off the field right now.'"
"He's fired," Trump continued as the crowd cheered. "He's fired."
The president said an NFL owner would become "the most popular person, for a week, they'll be the most popular person in this country" after firing a player who refused to stand for the anthem. And while "we have freedom of choice," Trump noted, it's "still totally disrespectful."
Though Trump did not mention a specific incident, his comments appear to reference Colin Kaepernick, who as the quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers last year repeatedly remained seated or kneeled while the national anthem played before games. He described the decision to remain seated as an act of protest.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Kaepernick, who is now a free agent, said at the time.
Colin Kaepernick takes a knee before a game last year.
Chris Carlson / AP
Soon after the protests began, the 49ers said their players had a right to exercise freedom of expression. Numerous other athletes followed Kaepernick's example and also protested during the national anthem.
Trump's comments about firing players were repeatedly met with cheers from the crowd, and after the rally his supporters expressed enthusiasm for the idea.
“I support that," Dee Reed, a Trump supporter who attended the rally, told BuzzFeed News. "I think they should, I think there ought to be repercussions for that."
Referring to Trump's suggestion that fans leave the games, he added that “tickets are a little bit expensive to walk out, but I definitely support what he’s saying."
Another rally attendee, Dewayne McDougal, also supported Trump's suggestion, saying, "a lot of men died for our flag. And when you kneel for the flag, that’s disrespectful."
“If I owned a football team, they kneeled, they would be gone," McDougal said. "There wouldn’t be no doubt. And there wouldn’t be no union to stop me."
McDougal, a Crimson Tide fan, said he stopped watching NFL football games about two years ago because of exactly what Trump was talking about: “It started getting political. You start taking the game out of something, then you don’t have football.”
In addition to suggesting that players like Kaepernick should be fired, Trump said Friday that professional football is being ruined because players are penalized if "they hit too hard."
The damage caused by high intensity impacts in football has become a focus of attention in recent years after some players have been found to suffer from brain trauma. On Thursday, a lawsuit alleged that Aaron Hernandez, the former NFL player who killed himself in prison after being convicted of murder, suffered from a degenerative brain disease known as CTE that can result from repeated concussions.
Trump didn't mention CTE, but did lament the changing state of the NFL Friday.
"They are ruining the game, right?" Trump said. "They're ruining the game."
Watch parts of Trump's speech here: