(TNS) — Players from almost every team in the National Football League showed their solidarity in protest of recent comments by President Donald Trump, either taking a knee or locking arms during the national anthem on Sunday.
Because of the time difference, players from the Baltimore Ravens and Jacksonville Jaguars got the jump on everyone by kneeling or locking arms in protest during the national anthem before the kickoff of their game in London on Sunday morning.
Back in the U.S, players in the nine 1 p.m. EDT games followed suit before their games started.
The Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the visitors' locker room at Soldier Field in Chicago during the national anthem. The only Steelers player who was visible was left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, who stood at the edge of the tunnel with his hand over his heart during the anthem.
In an interview with CBS before the game, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin explained the decision to stay in the locker room: "We're not going to play politics. We're football players, we're football coaches. We're not participating in the anthem today. Not to be disrespectful to the anthem, but to remove ourselves from this circumstance. People shouldn't have to choose. If a guy wants to go about his normal business and participate in the anthem, he shouldn't have to be forced to choose sides. If a guy feels the need to do something, he shouldn't be separated from his teammate who chooses not to. So we're not participating today. That's our decision. We're going to be 100 percent. We came here to play a football game. That's our intent."
Around the league, several team owners locked arms in solidarity with their players and coaches, among them Jacksonville Jaguars owner Shad Khan — who contributed $1 million to Trump's presidential campaign — Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford.
New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft issued a statement Sunday morning saying he was "deeply disappointed by the tone" of Trump's comments. Kraft is a close friend of Trump's and contributed $1 million to his campaign.
About two dozen Patriots locked arms before their home game against Houston, among them quarterback Tom Brady.
The protests, which had largely died down in the NFL, came in the wake of Trump's comments at a political rally Friday, when he challenged NFL owners to fire any player who didn't stand for the anthem.
On Sunday morning, Trump continued his attack on the most successful sports league in the country.
"If NFL fans refuse to go to games until players stop disrespecting our Flag & Country, you would see change take place fast," Trump tweeted. "Fire or suspend!"
In a later tweet he said: "... NFL attendance and ratings are WAY DOWN. Boring games yes, but many stay away because they love our country. League should back U.S."
Trump's attack has become an issue for more than the NFL. Other sports must now figure out how to deal with athletes who may want to make a symbolic protest. This has also caused debate on the protections afforded by the First Amendment and the continual national discussion on race.
Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, appearing on Sunday news talk shows as a presidential surrogate, declared that NFL players were welcome to express political opinions — off the field.
"They can do free speech on their own time," he said on ABC's "This Week."
Mnuchin's comments then drew a sharp response from Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who said on Twitter that the Treasury secretary did not seem to understand First Amendment protections.
"I am beginning to think that in govt, you are stupid as a rock," Lieu tweeted. "US Constitution also applies to NFL players. Get it?"
Marc Short, White House director of legislative affairs, tried to cast the protests as unpatriotic.
"He making the case that ... there are generations of Americans who have fought and died to protect our freedoms, and fought and died for the red on the flag that represents the blood that's been sacrificed by so many Americans," Short said on CBS' "Face the Nation."
On social media, views on anthem-kneeling became the latest litmus test of support or opposition to Trump's presidency. The hashtag #TakeTheKnee trended, with Trump backers praising the president for plain-speaking forthrightness and critics calling it further proof of deep-rooted racism among his base of support.
Last week, just six of the approximately 1,600 active players didn't stand for the anthem as part of the protests, originally intended to call attention to police shootings of unarmed black men and to the Black Lives Matter movement.
"It was a privilege to stand on the sidelines with the Jacksonville Jaguars today for the playing of the U.S. national anthem at Wembley Stadium," Jaguars owner Khan said in a statement. "I met with our team captains prior to the game to express my support for them, all NFL players and the league following the divisive and contentious remarks made by President Trump, and was honored to be arm in arm with them, their teammates and our coaches during our anthem . ...
"It was important for us, and personally for me, to show the world that even if we may differ at times, we can and should be united in the effort to become better as people and a nation."
New England's Kraft broke ranks with Trump to support the players.
"I am proud to be associated with so many players who make such tremendous contributions in positively impacting our communities," Kraft said in the statement.
"Their efforts, both on and off the field, help bring people together and make our community stronger. There is no greater unifier in this country than sports, and unfortunately, nothing more divisive than politics. I think our political leaders could learn a lot from the lessons of teamwork and the importance of working together toward a common goal. Our players are intelligent, thoughtful and care deeply about our community and I support their right to peacefully affect social change and raise awareness in a manner that they feel is most impactful."
Rams owner Stan Kroenke, another Trump contributor, came out in support of the players.
"We will continue to support our players' freedom to peacefully express themselves and the meaningful efforts they make to bring about positive change in our country," Kroenke said in a statement.