NEW YORK — The NFL says the message players and teams are trying to express is being lost in a political firestorm.
The issues have been "overtaken by political forces," NFL spokesman Joe Lockhart said Thursday, referring to President Trump’s criticism of the league, team owners and players for kneeling during the national anthem.
More than 200 players either knelt or used other means as expressions of unity last weekend. Lockhart said such actions are not a protest against the anthem or the flag.
"One of the impacts is to distort the views of the NFL and particularly our players," Lockhart said.
Trump said NFL owners fear their players, and he renewed calls for action against those who kneel during the anthem.
"I think they are afraid of their players, if you want to know the truth, and I think it’s disgraceful," he said in an interview that aired Thursday on "Fox and Friends." He says "most people agree" with him.
The players knelt last weekend in response to social injustice. Full teams, along with some team owners, linked arms either before or during the anthem. Three teams — Pittsburgh, Seattle and Tennessee — did not take the field until after the anthem.
"They are under attack now and the (original) lesson has been forgotten," Lockhart said. "It is important for everyone to understand what they are talking about, to not see everything in terms of who is up or down politically.
"The NFL players are men of character, many of whom are leaders in their community. They are patriotic, support the military. … They understand their platform can be used to make the country a better place."
Lockhart insisted there will be no "leaguewide directive" for future demonstrations.
"This is an issue that should involve the owners of the 32 clubs, the coaches and players to work out together," he said. "There is very regular dialogue going on between the players, coaches and owners. This is an issue that has sort of gripped the headlines. We all care very deeply about this.
"All of our owners don’t always agree with even each other, and the players often have a position at odds with the league, and we work hard to resolve those," he added. "We have been united on this issue. They are all pulling in the same direction, but we understand each locker room is different."
On Thursday, Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker said he and his family have received death threats since he told fans not to come to games if they felt disrespected by NFL players’ protests. The Pro Bowl tight end shared the "heartbreaking" threats in a social media post.
"The racist and violent words directed at me and my son only serve as another reminder that our country remains divided and full of hateful rhetoric," Walker wrote. "These words of hate will only fuel me in my efforts to continue my work reaching out to different community groups, listening to opposing voices, and honouring the men and women in the Armed Forces who risk their lives every day so that we may have this dialogue."
Detroit Lions defensive tackle Akeem Spence said on Twitter earlier Thursday that his father, a contractor, was denied a job on a house because of his protest.