President Donald Trump's call for National Football League owners to fire players who protest during the U.S. national anthem revealed an "unfortunate lack of respect" for the NFL and its players, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said on Saturday.
Goodell, in a statement released a day after Trump suggested any protesting football player was a "son of a bitch" and should lose his job, never mentioned the president by name but made a clear reference to his remarks at a political rally. "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 said in the statement.
As commissioner, Goodell reports to NFL owners, some of whom have supported Trump in the past. New York Jets owner Woody Johnson, a major Trump presidential campaign donor, was confirmed by the Senate last month as Trump's pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.
"Wouldn't you 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 is fired," Trump said on Friday at a rally for Alabama Senate Republican candidate Luther Strange.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick stirred a polarizing national debate in 2016 after refusing to stand during pre-game renditions of the "Star Spangled Banner" to protest police violence against African-Americans. Several players have made similar gestures of protest before games since Kaepernick initiated his protest.
The union representing professional football players also rejected Trump's comment, saying it would defend their right to freedom of expression.
"This union will never back down when it comes to protecting the constitutional rights of our players as citizens," tweeted DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the National Football League Players Association, referring to the First Amendment's guarantee of the right to free speech.
The White House could not be reached immediately to comment on the statements by Goodell or the union.
Protesting football players were not the only professional athletes targeted by Trump in recent days. In an early morning Twitter message on Saturday, the president rescinded a White House invitation to basketball star Stephen Curry, who had said he would "vote" against the planned visit by the National Basketball Association champion Golden State Warriors.
"Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" Trump tweeted.
The Golden State Warriors and Curry could not be immediately reached for comment.
LeBron James came to Curry's defense on Saturday, disputing Trump's assertion that visiting the White House was an honor.
"Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!" James, a prominent supporter of Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential elections, said on Twitter. (Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Frank McGurty and Mary Milliken)