(Reuters) – Several dozen NFL players, fewer than last week, chose to kneel during the U.S. national anthem before league games on Sunday, a day after President Donald Trump again demanded an end to a protest he sees as a sign of disrespect for the flag.
At least 40 players, most of them on the San Francisco 49ers, bent a knee during pre-game renditions of the “Star-Spangled Banner” in the 14 National Football League games played so far on Sunday, compared with 180 players in all 16 games a week earlier, according to published reports.
The protests – initiated last year by Colin Kaepernick, then a 49ers quarterback – snowballed last week following calls by Trump for team owners to fire athletes who sat or knelt as the anthem played.
Some African-American players have adopted the symbolic gesture of kneeling during the anthem to protest against police treatment of racial minorities.
Critics object to any protest, regardless of its merits, during a ceremony meant to honor the flag and the military that has defended it.
Some 30 members of the 49ers knelt before a game in Arizona on Sunday, and their general manager and chief executive stood behind them, The Mercury News in the San Francisco Bay area reported.
Players on some teams went to one knee before the anthem was played and then rose as a team when the song began. Players on a handful of teams stood with raised fists during parts of the anthem or after it, according to a team-by-team rundown from sports television network ESPN.
Other teams had players who stood with arms linked, and most players on about 10 teams displayed no protests, ESPN reported.
At London’s Wembley Stadium, where the NFL’s first game was played on Sunday, three members of the Miami Dolphins knelt as U.S. singer Darius Rucker performed the U.S. anthem. All of the other uniformed Dolphins and their opponents, the New Orleans Saints, stood along the sidelines, many with their right hands over their chests.
The three players who had knelt, stood for the British anthem, “God Save the Queen,” which was also performed before the game.
CONTROVERSY GRIPS NFL
‘Before last weekend’s games, Trump wrote a series of tweets that fueled the debate over whether the players should be able to protest during the anthem.
The controversy quickly enveloped the most popular U.S. sports league, preoccupied the news media and became a hot topic of discussion at bars and offices across the country.
The Saints and some other teams sought a compromise stance, kneeling in unison before the anthem and standing together during the song. The aim was to show respect for both the flag and the position taken by the protesters.
“The decision to kneel … prior to the anthem and then everyone stand up together, number one, it shows solidarity and unity for us as a team,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “Listen, it pays respect to all.”
During the past week, Trump kept up a steady drumbeat of criticism of the protesting players.
“Very important that NFL players STAND tomorrow, and always, for the playing of our National Anthem,” the Republican president wrote on Twitter on Saturday. “Respect our Flag and our Country!”
On Tuesday, Trump called on the NFL to ban players from kneeling in protest at games during the anthem.
“The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations,” he wrote. “The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can’t kneel during our national anthem!”
Outside Wembley Stadium on Sunday, not all British fans supported the players’ protests.
“I think everyone has the right to protest, but I think you have to choose your stage wisely,” said Laura Williams, who works in healthcare. “I think you risk upsetting more people than it’s worth.”
Mark Dodson, an engineer, said, however, the protests were “absolutely a global initiative” and “a sign of solidarity between different races, different backgrounds, different everything basically, which is great to see.”
Reporting by Christian Radnedge in London and Bernie Woodall in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Additional reporting by Chris Michaud in New York; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Peter Cooney