NFL owners feared Trump tweets about players kneeling, says journalist

Writer Mark Leibovich says the NFL commissioner urged players to stop kneeling during the national anthem last year, fearing their actions would draw criticism from President TrumpDonald John TrumpReturn hope to the Middle East by returning to the Iran Deal Government shutdowns tend to increase government spending 'Full Frontal' gives six-bedroom house to group that works with detained immigrants MORE.

Leibovich, who is currently promoting his new book, "The Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times,” said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell held a private meeting with players at the height of the national anthem controversy in 2017. Goodell was pressed to explain why quarterback Colin Kaepernick had not been signed by any team after leading the protests over police violence. But the owners were worried more about attention from Trump.

”Players are like, 'Why doesn’t Colin have a job?' And none of them had an answer — and the owners were like, ‘Can you just stop kneeling, because we don’t want Donald to tweet about us cause it’s bad,’ " Leibovich told Hill.TV “Rising” correspondent Jamal Simmons during an interview that aired on Friday.

Leibovich said it was at this moment he realized that the owners never had any kind of long-term plan for how to deal with the controversy, saying they were just “reactive.”

Even though Kaepernick faced backlash from the league since his protests against police brutality and racial injustice first made waves in 2016, Leibovich said he thinks the quarterback's legacy will live on, noting his recent deal with Nike. Kaepernick takes center stage in the brand's new ad campaign.

The ad, which features Kaepernick and other star athletes, calls on viewers to "believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything."

“I think Colin Kaepernick’s place in history is assured — and it probably doesn’t have anything to do with his football ability,” Leibovich told Hill.TV.

Kaepernick has not played since the 2016 season after opting out of his contract with the San Francisco 49ers, leading some to accuse the NFL of colluding against him and blacklisting him.

But Leibovich says NFL owners “aren’t that bright” and “not that bold.”

“Nike, I don’t know if they’re bright, but that was a bold move and what Colin Kaepernick did was bold move and what Donald Trump did ... he’s in the middle of this and this is the void of leadership in the NFL being filled by other forces,” he said.

Trump, a frequent critic of the protests during the national anthem, criticized the NFL and Nike over the ad, tweeting earlier this month that Nike was "absolutely killed with anger and boycotts."

— Tess Bonn