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Trump’s rally for Alabama’s Luther Strange segued into a rant about kneeling football players

The president suggested that NFL owners should fire athletes who don’t stand for the national anthem.

Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

President Donald Trump’s rally in Huntsville, Alabama, Friday night was supposed to gin up support for Sen. Luther Strange, who’s running to permanently fill the Senate seat he was appointed to after Jeff Sessions ascended to attorney general.

Trump ended up complaining about football.

As is often typical for a Trump rally, the event Friday was structured more like a Fox News opinion show: a little politics, a little current events, a little culture war. At one point, Trump referenced the recent trend — started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick — of black football players taking a knee during the national anthem in protest.

“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘get that son of a bitch off the field?’” Trump said to roaring applause. Trump said if owners fired a player for protesting the anthem, they would become “the most popular person in the country. Because that is a total disrespect of our heritage.” (Kaepernick, after leaving his contract with the 49ers, has not been able to secure a position on another team.)

Trump said these players are “ruining the game.” On Saturday, he reiterated these comments on Twitter.

And in a week when a former NFL player who had been convicted of murder and committed suicide was found to have brain damage, adding to the evidence that concussions are severely affecting players’ brains, Trump argued that focusing on athletes’ brain injuries is also “ruining the game.” Football players, he said, “want to hit.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell responded Saturday morning, but didn’t specifically mention Trump or the anthem protests. “Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” he said.

The president’s entire rally was, in keeping with his rallies since the campaign, wide-ranging and often rambling:

  • Trump said it might be better to build a “see-through” wall on the Southern border with Mexico to better monitor drug traffickers coming from Mexico.
  • Trump said he’s endorsing Strange out of loyalty. But “I might have made a mistake,” and “Luther will definitely win.”
  • The electoral college — which Trump won in November, despite failing to win the popular vote — “is a very special thing,” he said. "I've never really been in favor of it, but now I appreciate it."
  • "Just in case you were curious: No, Russia did not help me," Trump said at one point. Then he asked, “Are there any Russians in the audience?”
  • On the most recent failed efforts to repeal Obamacare, Trump said, “It’s like a boxer. Get knocked down. And [it] gets up.”

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