At a rally in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, President Donald Trump unloaded on the NFL players who are protesting the country and our law enforcement by refusing to stand for the national anthem.
"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!'" said Trump, to thunderous applause.
"You know, some owner is going to do that," he continued. "He’s going to say, 'That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.' And that owner, they don’t know it [but] they’ll be the most popular person in this country."
The protests, he said, exhibited a "total disrespect of our heritage" and "everything that we stand for."
After discussing the decline in the NFL's viewership over the last year, Trump said what was "hurting" the popularity of the game the most was the anthem protests. He then gave those who likewise found the protests distasteful some advice: walk out of the stadium if even a single player kneels.
"But do you know what’s hurting the game more than [too many penalties]?" he asked. "When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they’re playing our great national anthem. The only thing you could do better is if you see it, even if it’s one player, leave the stadium. I guarantee things will stop. Things will stop. Just pick up and leave. Pick up and leave. Not the same game anymore, anyway."
As for the penalties, Trump slammed all the 15-yard penalties for what had once been perfectly legal, "beautiful" tackles. "[Y]ou know today if you hit too hard: Fifteen yards! Throw him out of the game!" he said. "They’re ruining the game! That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game."
On Saturday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responded in a statement ripping Trump's "divisive" comments and "unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL."
"The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture," said Goodell. "There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month. 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."
Trump's claim that the NFL's ratings are "massively" declining is backed up by the evidence. The 2016 season saw an eye-opening 8% decline from the previous season overall. Data also supports his assertion that the anthem protests are doing significant damage. A recent study by J.D. Power found that the biggest reason fans said they had decided to turn off the NFL in 2016 was the national anthem protests. A little over a quarter (26%) of people who said they watched the NFL less last year cited the national anthem as the reason (around 24% cited the penalties and another 24% said domestic violence).