Now into Day 7 of President Donald Trump’s attack on the NFL, the league struck back and disputed Trump's latest claims – that team owners are afraid of players.
“There have been statements made in the last 12 hours or so about the league and about the owners, and I will say that, very simply, they’re not accurate,” NFL vice president of communications Joe Lockhart said Thursday in a conference call. “They’re not factual. But I’m not going to get in the business of fact-checking, so I’ll leave it there.
“I will say that this issue has been very much overtaken by political forces here, and one of the impacts of that is to distort the views of the NFL, the league, and particularly our players.”
Lockhart’s comments were in response to an ongoing series of tweets and comments Trump has made, which started Friday at a rally in Huntsville, Ala. In a Fox News interview that aired on Thursday morning, however, Trump set his sights on franchise owners.
"I have so many friends that are owners, and they’re in a box,” Trump said in the interview. “I mean, I’ve spoken to a couple of them. They say, ‘We are in this situation where we have to do something.’ I think they’re afraid of their players (if) you want to know the truth. And I think it’s disgraceful. And they’ve got to be tough and they’ve got to be smart.”
Lockhart said about two-thirds of NFL owners were in the league office in Manhattan this week for committee meetings, with the others participating by phone. Trump’s comments came up during meetings, and the owners addressed them directly.
“The owners were truly unified in the sense that the attacks on the game, on the NFL, on the players were unfair and unfounded,” Lockhart said. “I think there was also a sentiment that the issues are being obscured and distorted by people with political agendas, and I think they made it clear that they support our players.”
At the rally Friday, Trump said: “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. Out. He's fired. He's fired!”
In response, players and teams held widespread protests in Week 3 that saw more than 200 players push back by sitting or kneeling during the pregame playing of the national anthem. The Pittsburgh Steelers – with the exception of offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva – the Seattle Seahawks and Tennessee Titans all stayed in the locker room during the anthem.
With Week 4 scheduled to start Thursday night with a game between the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, more protests and gestures of unity are expected. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and tight end Martellus Bennett were among the players urging fans to lock arms during the anthem.
“There is no league-wide directive on how to do this,” Lockhart said of honoring the anthem. “It’s an issue that should involve the owners of our 32 clubs, their coaches and their players to work out together. What I can say is there is a very regular dialogue going on between the players, coaches and owners, as this is an issue that gripped the headlines. We all care very deeply about this.”