WASHINGTON • It began as a crowd-pleasing tirade from President Donald Trump to an overwhelmingly white, conservative crowd in Alabama. But even before dozens of National Football League (NFL) players knelt in silent protest on Sunday, his remarks had spiralled into a national uproar over race, patriotism and free speech, with an unpredictable political trajectory.
It is not yet clear whether most Americans are likely to sympathise with Mr Trump and his caustic scolding of the athletes, overwhelmingly black, who engage in certain forms of dissent; or with players who have pushed back against him and called his criticism inappropriate and demeaning.
But by savaging individual athletes - including Colin Kaepernick, former quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, and basketball star Stephen Curry of the Golden State Warriors - and calling for the firing of those who bring protest onto the field, Mr Trump created a larger moment of choosing sides that brought sports uncomfortably into the nation's political divide.
Little more than a month after the furore around Mr Trump's reaction to a white supremacist march in Virginia, the President has set off, deliberately or not, a new debate on race and protest.
The clash over the weekend took the form of unfiltered indignation from a largely black community of players, tortured expressions of discomfort from white franchise owners - and an ongoing stream of anger from Mr Trump and his supporters, venting on social media or in the stands.
By Sunday, the sports-watching world saw a display of politics in the athletic arena with no recent precedent in the United States - from images of two football squads declining to take to the field in Seattle; to a New York Giants star, Odell Beckham Jr, celebrating a touchdown by raising his fist to the air; to football executives expressing unease over Mr Trump's remarks.
More than 150 players were seen kneeling or sitting in the 14 games that took place on Sunday as their teammates and coaches locked hands in solidarity.
NOT RACE, BUT RESPECT
The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!''
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, in a tweet yesterday after protests by football teams on Sunday.
PRESIDENT WHO INSPIRES HATRED
A #POTUS whose name alone creates division and anger. Whose words inspire dissension and hatred can't possibly "Make America Great Again". ''
RETIRED LOS ANGELES LAKERS STAR KOBE BRYANT, referring to President Trump.
HOW THE CONTROVERSY SNOWBALLED
At a political rally in Alabama, US President Donald Trump said National Football League (NFL) players who protested during renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner should be fired. "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.' " Last year, former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during pre-game renditions of the national anthem to protest against police violence towards African-Americans.
Mr Trump doubled down on his criticism in further remarks on Twitter, saying no player should be allowed to disrespect the American flag.
He also turned his ire to the National Basketball Association's (NBA) reigning champions and their top player Stephen Curry, withdrawing an invitation to the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House, after Curry said last week that he would not attend. NBA stars, including Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and former Los Angeles Lakers player Kobe Bryant, sharply criticised Mr Trump. The protest against his comments also showed signs of spreading to other leagues, with a baseball player kneeling during the anthem last Saturday.
Mr Trump urged fans to boycott the NFL as long as the protests continued. Players, coaches and several owners protested across the league, starting with the Jacksonville Jaguars' game against the Baltimore Ravens in London. One of the biggest protests took place in the nation's capital, where almost the entire line-up of the Oakland Raiders team sat on their bench ahead of their game against the Washington Redskins.
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New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, a close friend of Mr Trump's who donated US$1 million (S$1.3 million) to his inauguration, issued a sharply worded statement that condemned the President's comments and supported the right of players to protest peacefully.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson said Mr Trump had effectively challenged athletes of all races to rise against him, by using language that Rev Jackson described as displaying a "slave-master-servant mentality".
He added that it was incumbent on athletes, irrespective of their race, to show Mr Trump they could not be belittled or stripped of their right to free speech. "They should all kneel, not against the flag, but against the interference by Trump with their First Amendment rights," Rev Jackson said.
Mr Trump is unlikely to back down in the face of criticism. He has intensified his statements repeatedly since declaring last Friday in Alabama that NFL owners should fire any "son of a b****" who fails to join displays of patriotism, a clear allusion to Kaepernick's practice of kneeling during the national anthem to protest against police brutality.
Mr Trump even suggested that football fans might "refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country". In another tweet on Sunday, he wrote: "Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable."
He also disinvited Curry's entire basketball team to the White House, after the player said he would not visit the presidential residence to celebrate the Warriors' championship victory.
Speaking to reporters, Mr Trump said his criticism had "nothing to do with race".
He has a long record of wielding racial and cultural divisions to his political advantage, as well as making inflammatory comments that distract from his policy agenda. His statements this weekend, for instance, drew attention away from a flagging effort by Senate Republicans to repeal the Affordable Care Act.
But he has been applauded by some elected Republicans, enthusiastically so by many in the conservative news media.
Ms Laura Ingraham, a radio and television host, cheered his rebuke of Curry on Twitter. "Pro-athletes who can't set aside politics" to visit the White House, she said, should "be treated like the spoiled children they are".
Mr Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who advises athletes and sports teams on public relations, said Mr Trump's acidic language and calls for retribution may have undermined public sympathy for his most basic demand - that athletes stand for the anthem.
"Trump went too far, but the overwhelming majority of Americans do not want to see football players disrespect the national anthem," he said.
Still, for all the immediate blowback against Mr Trump, it remains to be seen whether the tumultuous weekend might herald a more lasting cultural shift in sports towards more overt acknowledgement of racial and political issues.
Most athletes and team owners have avoided explicit political involvement, fearing they might alienate fans who hold a range of views.
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Anthem protests take over fields across the US. http://str.sg/49ku