Phil Murphy, the Democratic nominee for governor, said Monday that he was dumbfounded by how President Trump picked fights with professional athletes over the weekend, and said he supported the NFL players who protested in response.
Trump said Friday that a professional football player who kneels during the national anthem is a “son of a bitch” and should be fired. On Sunday, NFL players, owners and coaches from across the country staged protests during the national anthem, with some kneeling, sitting or locking arms in solidarity.
Some football players started kneeling during the national anthem last year to highlight social injustice, but many more protested Sunday after Trump’s comments. Trump has criticized the pre-game displays of dissent, describing them as disrespectful to the American flag. Murphy said Monday that he had no clue why the president of the United States waded into the issue in the first place.
“I have no idea why he’s getting in the middle of that, like a lot of other things,” Murphy said after an unrelated event in Newark. “I just have no idea with all that we have before us, whether it’s domestic challenges … North Korea, Iran, global terrorism, whatever it is – why are we talking about this stuff we’re talking about? It just doesn’t – put aside that I think it’s flat wrong – you want the president of the United States focused on what he should be focused on.”
Murphy said he supported the NFL players who protested in response, saying they were expressing their First Amendment right to free speech.
“You can both be a patriot and also say, ‘you know what, I have the right to speak my own mind.’ So I give them a lot of credit,” Murphy said. “They did it in different ways and in some cases whole teams did things, and in other cases individuals did them. And it looked to me like they’re all in it together. It looked to me like ownership and players and coaches all got a little bit closer together as a result of this, so maybe some good things can happen from that.”
Murphy’s Republican rival in the governor’s race, Kim Guadagno, disagreed. In a Facebook post, she said it was a “no brainer” to stand and salute the flag when the national anthem is played.
“As the mother of an Air Force pilot, I believe this is a no-brainer,” she wrote. “When that national anthem comes on, no matter who you are or what issues you may have, you should stand and salute our flag. Our anthem should and must stay above the partisan political fray.”
Murphy happened to be with a professional athlete on Monday. NBA legend and Newark native Shaquille O’Neal joined Murphy for a pep rally at a high school in the city. A Murphy spokesman said O’Neal endorsed Murphy earlier in the day at a fundraiser, though Shaq didn’t formally back Murphy during the high school event.