CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the debate over protests before football games continue, some West Virginians are voicing their thoughts about whether athletes should be allowed to kneel during the national anthem.
Opponents of the protests, like U.S. Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., are standing behind President Donald Trump’s criticisms of players who protest during a game’s opening ceremony. Others, including football players who call West Virginia home, said they believe players should have a right to express their opinion.
Trump criticized football players who kneel during a campaign rally Friday in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when someone disrespects our flag to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch of the field right now,'” the president said to applause. “‘He’s fired. He’s fired!'”
Trump was campaigning in Alabama on behalf of interim Sen. Luther Strange, who was running against former Supreme Court of Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore in the race to serve in the seat vacated by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Moore beat Strange in Tuesday’s Republican primary.
The kneeling began in August 2016, when then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest police brutality of African-Americans.
Trump’s comments sparked criticism from multiple NFL teams, leading to players and personnel joining together before games this week by locking arms, kneeling or not coming onto the field until after the anthem. Athletes from other sports, including LeBron James of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., also commented in support of allowing players to protest.
Mooney said on the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday that Trump was right to criticize those who choose to kneel.
“As a nation, we forget about our political and other differences and come together to enjoy the sport of football,” he said. “But these players wrongly decided to turn the game into a political statement. We lose that moment of national unity and respect for our country. Sports have always been a unifying factor, and a chance for a nation to come together.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Trump’s comments “divisive” in a statement released Saturday.
“The NFL and our players are at our best when we help create a sense of unity in our country and our culture,” he added. “There is no better example than the amazing response from our clubs and players to the terrible natural disasters we’ve experienced over the last month.”
Mooney said Tuesday the NFL was being divisive by allowing players to sit during the national anthem.
“If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay. You can go. No one’s making you stay,” he noted later in his speech.
“I certainly respect anyone’s right to protest and the right of an NFL team owner to discipline disorderly conduct or rude behavior.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said during a Facebook town hall Monday evening he will continue to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
“The owners of these football teams that have these contracts with these players and the conditions that these players are going to be playing under has to step in here and say, ‘I’m not going to tolerate it,'” he said.
“The only thing that you and I can do right now is turn off the TV if you don’t want to watch. Don’t go to the game if that’s a team you don’t respect for whatever reason.”
Former football players talked about this weekend’s protests and Trump’s comments during Monday’s MetroNews “Hotline.” Carl Lee, a regular guest on the program who previously played for the Minnesota Vikings, said players have no choice but the make their cause visible.
“I think there is this side of fans who say they want to watch the game, they don’t want politics, they don’t want opinions, they don’t want that. But that’s a very hard thing to do,” he noted.
“We’re not like robots. We’re not just like toy animals that run around on the field and tackle people to entertain you. We have personal views and ideas and concepts and strong beliefs in a lot of things that everybody else does.”
Lee, a South Charleston native, also played at Marshall University. He previously was the coach for the West Virginia State University football team.
Chris Massey, of Chesapeake, spent a majority of his NFL team playing for the St. Louis Rams as a long snapper following his time at Marshall. He said he will continue standing for the national anthem to pay respect to those in his family who served in the military, but added whether to stand or kneel is a player’s decision.
“If they feel like they need to sit and protest to raise awareness for certain social injustices, that’s their right,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fair for me to sit and pass judgment on anyone.”
Lee said this is not a black-or-white issue, but an American problem.
“I feel like players have a right on their stage to make the comments or make peaceful protesting anyway they want,” he said. “I think it is important that people not try to box athletes in.”
Between Friday night and Tuesday evening, Trump published or retweeted 22 tweets about the issue. He said the NFL should set a rule banning players from kneeling during the national anthem.