President Trump has picked fights with two of the nation’s most popular professional sports leagues, setting off a Twitter war with top athletes who were quick to fight back in an extraordinary display of political trash-talking with thinly veiled racial undertones.
Even National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell jumped into the fray Saturday, criticizing Trump for “divisive comments” as some players responded on social media with much harsher language.
Basketball superstar LeBron James called Trump a “bum” and said that “going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
The battle began Friday night, when Trump publicly criticized African American football players, following an example set last season by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who have been kneeling during the national anthem to protest the nation’s racial disparities.
Trump urged NFL owners to fire the players and encouraged fans to walk out of games in their own protest.
“That’s a total disrespect of our heritage. That’s a total disrespect of everything that we stand for,” Trump told a rally Friday in Alabama, where he was campaigning for Republican Sen. Luther Strange.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you’d say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired,” Trump said to loud applause.
Trump followed that up Saturday morning by taking to Twitter to apparently withdraw his invitation to the National Basketball Assn. champion Golden State Warriors to visit the White House, singling out the team’s star, Stephen Curry, for “hesitating” about accepting the offer.
Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
Trump’s move appeared preemptory, as the team was expected to vote to decline the traditional White House offer extended to sports champions after Curry said Friday he would oppose a visit. It was unclear Saturday whether Trump disinvited the whole team or just Curry.
The Golden State Warriors announced later Saturday that they decided to skip the traditional championship visit to the White House while acknowledging that Trump made it clear they were not invited.
“We believe there is nothing more American than our citizens having the right to express themselves freely on matters important to them,” the team said in a statement.
The Warriors said they were “disappointed” they would not have the opportunity to “share our views” on “issues impacting our communities.” Instead, the team plans to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion” when it visits Washington in February.
Curry, who has been critical of Trump, said that by snubbing the White House invitation he hoped to send a message “that we don’t stand for basically what our president has — the things that he’s said and the things that he hasn’t said in the right times, that we won’t stand for it.”
Trump’s double-barreled criticism led to a swift backlash from superstars such as James who are as adept at Twitter as the president.
Former Clippers star Chris Paul, now with the Houston Rockets, also took to Twitter to wonder why Trump even cared about the issues, and then challenged the president’s manhood.
Former Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant tweeted Saturday that a president “whose name alone creates division and anger” and “whose words inspire dissension and hatred can’t possibly ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”
Trump’s comments about player protests of the national anthem drew the widest criticism.
Goodell didn’t mention Trump by name, but clearly referenced the president in a written statement Saturday that emphasized the need for “a sense of unity in our country and our culture.”
“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,” Goodell said.
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of that NFL Players Assn. union, also publicly denounced Trump, saying in a written statement that “the line that marks the balance between the rights of every citizen in our great country gets crossed when someone is told to just ‘shut up and play.’ ”
Trump, who once owned the New Jersey Generals of the now-defunct U.S. Football League, appeared unfazed by the criticism.
Later Saturday, he doubled down on his comments by tweeting, “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. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
Richard Sherman, the outspoken defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks, had tweeted Saturday that Trump’s behavior was “unacceptable” and that remaining silent was the same as agreeing with it.
The behavior of the President is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. If you do not Condemn this divisive Rhetoric you are Condoning it!!— Richard Sherman (@RSherman_25) September 23, 2017
Max Garcia, an offensive lineman with the Denver Broncos, wondered on Twitter “where was this passion in response to Charlottesville.” Trump was criticized for initially failing to call out white supremacists and other hate groups whose protests triggered violence in the Virginia college town over the summer.
And Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson tweeted that it was “a sad day” when the president “seeks to disregard and punish American citizens for peacefully exercising their constitutional rights.”
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated to note the Warriors’ decision not to visit the White House.
This article was originally published at noon.