Trump believes NFL players' right to protest is not a matter of free speech, White House says

President cancels Super Bowl celebration after most Philadelphia Eagles players refuse to attend

Tom Embury-Dennis
Wednesday 06 June 2018 08:45 BST
NBC asks Sarah Sanders about white house stance on freedom of speech

Donald Trump does not believe NFL players’ right to protest police violence and racial injustice is a matter of free speech, the White House has said.

Speaking to reporters, press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president did not believe it was “an issue simply of free speech”.

“He thinks it’s about respecting the men and women of our military,” she said. “It’s about respecting our national anthem and it’s about standing out of pride for that.”

Mr Trump has feuded with NFL players for the past year, condemning on-field protests in which players sat or kneeled during the national anthem to protest racial bias in the US criminal justice system, amid accusations of excessive use of force against black people by police.

Asked if he would be willing to host a roundtable meeting with American athletes to discuss issues of racial injustice, Ms Sanders said: “I’d certainly be happy to ask him.”

On Tuesday, the billionaire staged a political event at the White House instead of a Super Bowl party for the competition’s winners, the Philadelphia Eagles, after most team members refused to attend.

Trump appears to forget the lyrics to 'God Bless America'

The White House said it cancelled the long-established tradition for the Super Bowl winning team after the Eagles said just a handful of people would attend.

At the ceremony on the South Lawn, Mr Trump insisted on the need for Americans to stand up for the anthem to honour men and women who have died in the military.

"We stand to show our love for our fellow citizens and our magnificent Constitution," Mr Trump said as many attendees waved small American flags.

During a rendition of “God Bless America”, however, the 71-year-old appeared to forget the lyrics. When performers reached the words “to the oceans white with foam,” Mr Trump stopped singing, and nodded to the beat instead.

Following Mr Trump’s cancellation of the Super Bowl event, star basketball players LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Stephen Curry, of the Golden State Warriors, said they agreed that whichever team wins the NBA championship would skip the traditional visit to the White House.

Last September, Mr Trump revoked an invitation to the Warriors, who had beaten the Cavaliers for the title, after Curry said he would vote against a planned visit.

Some Eagles players to criticised Mr Trump's decision to cancel the Super Bowl event.

"It's a cowardly act to cancel the celebration because the majority of the people don't want to see you," said Torrey Smith, a member of the Eagles team who has since been traded to the Carolina Panthers.

"No one refused to go simply because Trump 'insists' folks stand for the anthem.”

"There are a lot of people on the team that have plenty of different views. The men and women that wanted to go should've been able to go.”

Zach Ertz criticised Fox News after the network illustrated a news segment about Mr Trump's decision with footage of Philadelphia Eagles players kneeling in prayer during a news segment, creating the misleading impression that they were protesting.

"This can't be serious... Praying before games with my teammates, well before the anthem, is being used for your propaganda?" Ertz wrote on Twitter. "Just sad, I feel like you guys should have to be better than this."

The network removed the segment online and officials apologised for using the footage, Christopher Wallace, executive producer of "Fox News @ Night," said in a statement.

No Eagles player knelt or sat during the national anthem during the 2017 regular season, according to a report by Sports Pundit, which tracked protests among the 32 NFL teams.

Ms Sanders said the White House had tried to avoid cancelling the event, which the Secret Service had cleared hundreds of Eagles fans to attend.

"The White House, despite sensing a lack of good faith, nonetheless attempted to work with the Eagles over the weekend to change the event format that could accommodate a smaller group of players," she said.

But the Eagles said only a "tiny handful" of representatives would show up and that the great majority of players would not attend, Ms Sanders said.

"The vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans," she added.

Eagles representatives could not be reached for immediate comment. Pennsylvania officials, including Philadelphia's Democratic mayor and members of the state's congressional delegation invited the team to alternative events.

Additional reporting by Reuters.

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