NFL readies for second week in political spotlight
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The NFL is bracing for the political spotlight again Sunday, more than a week after President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Guardian slams Trump over comments about assault on reporter Five takeaways from the first North Dakota Senate debate Watchdog org: Tillerson used million in taxpayer funds to fly throughout US MORE stoked controversy by feuding with NFL players who kneel in protest during the national anthem.

Players and coaches are set to hit the field Sunday a week after hundreds of NFL players and team executives took a knee or linked arms as the national anthem played at games across the country in response to Trump's remarks that players who don't stand during the anthem should be fired.

Even as much of the focus shifted this weekend toward the Trump administration's response to the growing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and the president's feud with the mayor of San Juan, speculation intensified on how teams would handle the second round of protests.

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Most teams have remained tight-lipped about their plans for Sunday’s games. So far, at least one team, the Denver Broncos, has said its players will stand during the national anthem when the team hosts the Oakland Raiders on Sunday.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees announced on Friday that his team would kneel before the national anthem on Sunday but stand during the song, an effort he said that is intended to “show respect for all.”

On Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell huddled with prominent team owners and players at the league’s headquarters in New York to chart a path forward through the controversy.

"It was a whole bunch of opinions shared. There was nothing we decided we're going to do collectively,” New York Giants linebacker Jonathan Casillas told NJ.com, which first reported on the meeting. “I think it was a very conducive meeting."

Casillas said that Giants co-owner John Mara requested that players stand for the national anthem but agreed to support those who choose not to.

Tensions with the president escalated last week after Trump called on the league to establish a formal ban on players protesting during the anthem. Trump called for the prohibition after at least 200 players defied his comments by sitting or kneeling during the anthem at games last Sunday.

Team owners and executives are pushing to move beyond the controversy, fearing it politicizes an otherwise apolitical sport and could hurt viewership.

A pair of major ticket vendors said this week that NFL sales have slumped amid the controversy. TickPick reported a 17.9 percent decline from the previous week, while TicketCity reported an even sharper 31 percent falloff.

The league’s television ratings are also sure to be closely watched on Sunday. Conservative groups and Trump allies like Fox News host Sean Hannity have called on fans to boycott the games, which have already seen a drop in viewership this year.

Trump has suggested that ratings have dwindled because of the demonstrations, which began last year with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick as a way to protest police brutality and racial injustice.

The issue has also left much of the country divided. A CNN poll released Friday found that, overall, 49 percent of Americans believe that NFL players who kneel during the anthem are doing the wrong thing, while slightly less — 43 percent — say it is the right thing to do.

The division becomes even more stark along racial lines, with 59 percent of white respondents saying that players are wrong to protest and 82 percent of black respondents saying players are right to do so.

At the same time, however, a majority of Americans say that Trump’s criticism of the NFL and its players was wrong.

Despite the numbers, the president appeared eager last week to carry on his feud with the NFL, saying on Wednesday that the league’s business “is going to hell” amid the anthem protests and suggesting on Thursday that team owners were “afraid of their players.”

Even as he faced a wave of criticism over his administration’s response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Trump insisted that he wasn’t preoccupied with the NFL, contending that it was important for him to address the protests.

"I don't think you can disrespect our country, our flag, our national anthem,” he said during a news conference at the White House. “To me, the NFL situation is a very important situation. I've heard that before about 'was I preoccupied' — not at all, not at all."