No matter what other challenges his administration faces, President Donald Trump is keeping up his running commentary on the NFL — tweeting Tuesday about the football league's TV ratings and suggesting it bar players from kneeling during the national anthem.
The NFL, for its part, was not all that eager to continue the back-and-forth with Trump.
"He's exercising his freedom to speak," league spokesman Joe Lockhart said on a conference call with reporters, "and I'm exercising my freedom not to react."
Asked about the possibility of the NFL punishing players or league employees for actions during the pregame anthems, Lockhart said: "I will leave the hypotheticals and the speculation to others. I'm not going to go down that road."
President Trump said earlier Tuesday that defending the American flag through tweets about NFL players is an important part of his job as president, and has not distracted him from the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.
"I wasn't preoccupied with the NFL, I was ashamed of what was taking place because to me that was a very important moment," Trump said. "I have plenty of time on my hands. All I do is work and, to be honest with you, that's an important function of working. It's called respect for our country."
He had tweeted earlier Tuesday: "The NFL has all sorts of rules and regulations. The only way out for them is to set a rule that you can't kneel during our National Anthem!"
And: "Ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts, when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected!"
The ratings for Monday's Cowboys-Cardinals game were up 63 percent from the equivalent game a year ago, which went up against a presidential debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton. The ratings for Week 3 of the NFL season were 3 percent higher than the same week last season.
The anthem protests originated with former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who opted to "take a knee" during the pre-game national anthem to highlight institutionalized police violence against minorities.
But the message of these protests has morphed, and demonstrations have gained momentum particularly since Friday, when Trump referred to any player still taking a knee during the anthem as a "son of a bitch" who should be fired.
Far more NFL players took part in the protest this Sunday than had on any prior day, and most teams took part in displays of unity. New England Patriots owner Bob Kraft and quarterback Tom Brady, friends of Trump's, took issue with his remarks.
Still, Trump continues to cast the issue in terms of respect for country and flag, saying Tuesday that to kneel during the anthem is disrespectful of veterans he's met who have missing limbs.
"They were fighting for our country, they were fighting for our flag, they were fighting for our national anthem and for people to disrespect that by kneeling for the national anthem is disrespectful," he said.
Following the weekend of kneeling and protesting across the NFL, and more tweets from Trump, the Cowboys and their Trump-supporting owner Jerry Jones displayed their own version of unity during Monday Night Football. They kneeled on the field before rising as a group for the playing of the national anthem.
Trump began the day with tweets about the NFL, saying, "ratings for NFL football are way down except before game starts when people tune in to see whether or not our country will be disrespected."
He also said that booing at the Dallas game Monday night when the team dropped to its knees was the "loudest I have ever heard," and said the fans who did so had "great anger."
Trump noted in this tweets that the team stood for the anthem: "Big progress being made- we all love our country."
Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, also condemned the protesting NFL players Tuesday, saying at a talk on free speech at Georgetown University’s law school that “they can express their political views without in effect denigrating the symbols of our nation.”