Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump on Sunday urged fans to boycott National Football League games to pressure it to fire or suspend players who kneel in protest during the national anthem, intensifying a battle over politics, social justice and race in America's most popular sport.
But in the first NFL game since Trump touched off the spat Friday with an expletive-laden speech to supporters in Alabama, at least a dozen players on the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonsville Jaguars, playing in London, took a knee Sunday during the playing of "The Star-Spangled banner."
Others stood and locked arms in a show of solidarity. More protests were expected Sunday as the rest of the games of week three of the season were played.
It was one of the largest such protests since former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is African American, first began refusing to stand for the anthem in 2016.
The protest spread Saturday to Major League Baseball for the first time: a black Oakland Athletics catcher named Bruce Maxwell knelt during the anthem before a game in California.
Trump's latest salvo came in an early morning tweet in which he said: "If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag and Country, you will see change take place fast. Fire or suspend!"
"NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S.," he said.
NFL ratings are in fact down but the decline predates the kneeling-during-the-anthem protests, the New York Times reported.
Kaepernick's protest was aimed at drawing more attention to treatment of minorities in America following a spate of deadly police shootings of black men. He has since been unable to sign with any NFL team, and some say he was quietly blackballed. But support for his position snowballed and other players have started protesting in the same way he did.
Defenders of players such as Kaepernick say they have every right to express their social views at game time. Critics counter that fans who pay big money to attend NFL games or watch them on TV should not have to put up with political statements by players, and that the protests are disrespectful of the country and its military.
Trump's Treasury Secretary, Stephen Mnuchin, waded into the fray Sunday, defending Trump and saying the NFL should have a rule that obliges players to show respect for the national anthem by standing while it is played.
"This isn't about Democrats, it's not about Republicans, it's not about race, it's not about free speech. They can do free speech on their own time," Mnuchin told ABC.
The row began on Friday at a Republican rally in Alabama when Trump attacked activist NFL players -- mostly African Americans -- as "sons of bitches" for kneeling or sitting during renditions of the anthem.
On the same day, basketball star Stephen Curry, the top player for California's Golden State Warriors, said he would not attend a traditional White House reception honoring the NBA champions.
Trump hit back hours later with another early-morning Twitter salvo.
- 'You bum' -
"Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" he wrote.
Trump's outburst drew a stinging response from across the NBA, with Cleveland Cavaliers superstar LeBron James among the first to weigh in.
"U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going!" James wrote on Twitter. "So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up."
On Sunday, the owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Robert Kraft -- a close friend of the president -- issued a statement saying he was "deeply disappointed by the tone" of Trump's comments Friday in Alabama.
Kraft defended NFL players as intelligent, thoughtful people who work with and care about their communities and he defended their right "to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful."
Kraft called sports a unifying force in America and said "our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and working together toward a common goal."