President Donald Trump put NFL owners in an unwanted spotlight this weekend with his suggestion, starting at a rally in Alabama on Friday and continuing on Twitter, that they should fire players who protest during the national anthem and calling on fans to boycott the league.
Until this week, the relationship between the National Football League’s owners and Trump was mostly a cozy one. Nine team owners donated money to Trump or to groups that supported him both during his campaign and since his election. Together they’ve given more than $10 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.
On Sunday, several of these Trump donors responded to his comments with words of rebuke and displays of solidarity with players. Ahead of the Jacksonville Jaguars game with the Baltimore Ravens at Wembley Stadium in London, Jaguars owner Shahid Khan stood on the field during the Star-Spangled Banner, arms locked with two of his players. Dozens of players on both sides of the field took a knee. Khan donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
Later in the day, the New York Jets’ acting owner Christopher Johnson, who assumed daily operations of the team after his older brother Robert (Woody) was appointed by Trump to be the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, also stood locking arms with two players before a game with the Miami Dolphins. None of the Jets players sat, while, across the field, several Miami players did. (Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who is not on the list of Trump donors, also stood locking arms with players.) Woody Johnson gave a combined $1.5 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, to the host committee for the Republican National Convention, and to Trump Victory, a joint fundraising effort by the campaign and the RNC.
After the Jets game, the team posted a picture of the pre-game ceremony on Twitter under the caption “Unity” and put out a statement from the younger Johnson calling it an “honor and a privilege to stand with players.” The statement did not mention Trump or refer to his call for a boycott.
Trump’s comments seem to have galvanized a typically conservative group. In addition to the nine Trump donors, another seven of the NFL’s 32 owners made political contributions in the 2016 election cycle, primarily to Republicans. On Sunday, their common interests as business owners appeared to trump any political allegiances.
“We have a lot of work to do, and we can do it, but the comments by the President make it harder,” Khan said in a statement after the anthem in London. He called it a privilege to stand with his players. In the most dramatic gestures on a day full of them, players for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, and Seattle Seahawks stayed in their locker rooms during the national anthem.
Trump on Sunday continued to stoke the controversy on Twitter, writing that the NFL should change its policy on protests and drawing a line in the sand: “Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable,” he wrote.
Robert McNair, owner of the Houston Texans and founder of power company Cogen Technologies, was the most generous NFL owner among Trump’s donors, with $3.5 million in gifts to the inaugural committee, Trump Victory, and Great America, a super-PAC that supported Trump. McNair echoed other owners in a statement calling Trump’s comments “divisive and counterproductive.”
Stan Kroenke of the Los Angeles Rams, Daniel Snyder of the Washington Redskins, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, and Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys joined Johnson and Khan in making $1 million gifts to Trump’s inaugural fund. Kraft’s gift came through the Kraft Group, a holding company for the family’s businesses, while Jones gave through Glenstone LP, a company that shares an address with the Cowboys and other of his businesses.
Jim Haslam of the Cleveland Browns and Edward Glazer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers round out the list of Trump donors. (Glazer also made a small contribution to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.)
It’s not known whether any of those owners have also given to America First Policies, the pro-Trump nonprofit that launched ads on Sunday urging Trump-supporting football fans to "Turn off the NFL." It isn’t required to disclose its donors.