By Doina Chiacu
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump said he believes that owners of National Football League teams are afraid of their players, his latest criticism of NFL players kneeling during the U.S. national anthem at games to protest racial disparities in the country.
The Republican president told "Fox & Friends" in an interview broadcast on Thursday that he is friends with many NFL team owners and they were "in a box" over how to handle the kneeling protests.
"They say, 'We are in a situation where we have to do something.' I think they're afraid of their players, you want to know the truth. And I think it's disgraceful," he said.
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Trump did not identify any of the friends. An NFL representative did not respond to a request for comment.
Most team owners are billionaire white men, while, according to the NFL, 70 percent of players are African-American.
The top Republican in Congress, House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan, did not address Trump's latest comment on Thursday but said he believed NFL players' decision to kneel while the national anthem played at games was misguided.
"Clearly, people have a right to express themselves," Ryan said. But doing so in front of the U.S. flag, "looks like you're protesting against the ideals of America. ... I think it's misguided."
The president first denounced the symbolic gesture on Friday, telling a political rally in Alabama that any protesting player was a "son of a bitch" who should be fired, and urged a boycott of NFL games.
Trump has beaten back questions about whether his focus on the NFL protests took his attention away from a host of crises, including hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico and tensions with North Korea.
While Trump's verbal assault has likely appealed to his conservative base, it has drawn widespread criticism, including from the NFL's commissioner, Roger Goodell. Many players and owners kneeled, stood with locked arms or stayed off the field altogether in response to the president's comments.
Hillary Clinton, Trump's Democratic rival in the 2016 presidential election, called Trump's comments "a huge, loud dog whistle to his supporters" in an interview with CBS.
The chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Democratic U.S. Representative Cedric Richmond, expressed "disgust" with the president's handling of race relations in a letter on Wednesday that also condemned his "calculated, divisive" response to the NFL protests.
Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House, said Trump's NFL comments were "beneath the dignity of his office."
(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Makini Brice in Washington, Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Jonathan Oatis)