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Lawmakers Join the Battle Over NFL Protests

Some Republicans are boycotting the league, while some Democrats laud it

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in jacket, and head coach Jason Garrett, right, kneel with their team in a show of solidarity before the national anthem during a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday. (James D. Smith via AP)
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, in jacket, and head coach Jason Garrett, right, kneel with their team in a show of solidarity before the national anthem during a game against the Arizona Cardinals on Monday. (James D. Smith via AP)


Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined the battle for patriotic superiority that heated up in NFL stadiums over the weekend.

The debate focused on whether kneeling during the performance of the national anthem is an appropriate way for players to protest perceived racial injustice. Players, as well as some coaches and owners, also locked arms.

Many Republicans who have commented on the controversy said those protesting may be within their rights. But they also said it was disrespectful to soldiers and first responders who have fought and died under the American flag that flutters during anthem performances. President Donald Trump suggested Friday that players who don’t stand should be fired.

“Aren’t there better ways than kneeling before the flag soldiers died to defend?” Republican Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska asked in one of several tweets he posted over the weekend.

Sasse did not spare Trump any criticism either, suggesting the president was purposely driving an ideological wedge through the country.

“Trump wants you to kneel — because it divides the nation, with him and the flag on the same side,” Sasse wrote. “Don’t give him the attention he wants.”

At a press conference in Washington on Tuesday, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan echoed Sasse’s sentiments when responding to a question about the NFL protests.

“People are clearly within their rights to express themselves as they see fit,” the Wisconsin Republican said.

But Americans “shouldn’t do it on the anthem,” he said. “Our national anthem, our flag and the people who defend it and represent it — that should be celebrated everywhere and always.” 

Strong responses from the GOP

Some of the more conservative elements of the House GOP favored Trump’s more aggressive tone. 

The president lit a firestorm Friday at a rally for Republican Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama when he called any NFL player who kneels during the national anthem a “son of a bitch.”

Dozens of players began doing that earlier this month to protest racial inequality and police brutality in the United States, following the example of Colin Kaepernick, the former San Francisco 49ers quarterback. Kaepernick first kneeled during the national anthem last season.

Trump tweeted 11 times over the weekend blasting the NFL for its response to the players’ protest.

“If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem,” the president tweeted Saturday. “If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”

Rep. Clay Higgins now plans to boycott the NFL.

“My Sundays have a lot more Harley Davidson time now,” the Louisiana Republican told WWL radio in New Orleans on Tuesday. “Unless and until the NFL makes a bold stance against the appalling disrespect of our national anthem, the NFL is dead to me.”

Some Republicans also are now questioning the NFL’s tax-exempt status at the federal level, which Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida attributed to “some swamp creature of yesteryear.” (The NFL began voluntarily forfeiting its tax exemption in 2015 due to negative press.)

Democrats pounce

Democratic lawmakers seized the opportunity to blast the president and applaud NFL players, management and ownership for exercising their right to protest.

Members of Congress Take A Knee in Support of NFL Players

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House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said she thought Trump should have used the NFL protests “to bring people together.”

She characterized his response as “feeding red meat to his base” on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday.

“I think he was ill-advised, if he was advised at all, to go down this path,” the California Democrat said.

Other Democrats suggested Trump is harping on a distraction when he should be focusing on more pressing issues facing the country.

 The lawmakers who weighed in on the national anthem controversy have a few other things to consider. Republicans, for example, still want to overhaul the federal tax code by Thanksgiving and make good on a seven-year promise to repeal and replace the 2010 health care law. Both parties are working on a replacement for the canceled Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The president should be focusing on hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico, Texas and Florida and threats of aggression from North Korea instead of going on “rants about NFL players’ American right to peacefully protest racial discrimination,” Florida Rep. Lois Frankel tweeted Monday. 

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island linked to a New York Times article in which the governor of Puerto Rico called the situation there a humanitarian crisis. 

“Maybe pay attention to this, Mr. President, instead of fights with the NFL,” Whitehouse said in the tweet.

Other Democrats, including Reps. Darren Soto and Norma Torres of California, avoided discussing the president’s role in the NFL affair altogether. Instead, they singled out players and organizations for praise.

Bringing attention to racial injustice through peaceful protest, Soto tweeted Monday, is “as patriotic as it gets.”

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