DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association, told ESPN last week that "for the first time, the owners are afraid of the players," echoing comments made last week by President Donald Trump that were criticized by the league office.
"For the first time, the owners are afraid of the players," Smith told ESPN's Outside the Lines during a Friday interview. "The owners are used to being in control—and they aren't on this. They know it. They hate it."
Smith's statement is almost identical to comments made to Fox News the day before by Trump, who said owners were "afraid of their players." He further commented that the league was "in a box."
The league's spokesman, Joe Lockhart, a former White House press secretary during the Clinton administration and a longtime veteran of Democratic campaigns, sharply rebuked Trump's comment. He held a conference call after Trump's interview to state that the claim was "inaccurate" and that the owners were "united" against Trump's "attacks on the game."
Lockhart's statement that owners were not afraid of players was included in ESPN's original report on Trump's remarks, but was not used to combat the statement when it was made by Smith.
The Outside the Lines report notes that many owners were "angry" with the way Lockhart handled the league's response to Trump after the president advised owners to fire players who protest the national anthem. Lockhart's immediate response was that discussion of police brutality and race by players was an example of "real locker room talk."
The Washington Post wrote that "Lockhart used surgical precision in leveling a shot at President Trump." The owners felt that Lockhart had "unnecessarily politicized the league's response," according to ESPN.
Trump's comment that owners were "afraid" of players was labeled a "racist dogwhistle" by liberal commentators at Mother Jones, The Root, and Think Progress, which wrote that "Trump’s idea that NFL owners—almost all of whom are white—are afraid of black players speaks to the social injustices that led Colin Kaepernick to take a knee in the first place."
ESPN's Jemele Hill, who the White House criticized just weeks ago for calling Trump a "white supremacist," called Trump's comment "peak racial demagoguery."
Oh my, we have reached peak racial demagoguery. https://t.co/jlXmpDZbHd
— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) September 28, 2017
Another liberal commentator, Seth Abramson, wrote that Trump's comment surpassed "dog-whistling" and was a "racist public rant."
Trump says the white owners of the NFL are "afraid" of its black players.
That's not "racist dog-whistling."
It's a "racist public rant."
— Seth Abramson (@SethAbramson) September 28, 2017
His views were shared by many on Twitter, who similarly used the comment to label Trump a racist.
Trump defenders say there is no way you can think he meant that. Yet, I don't see how you can't see it that way https://t.co/pypkDJrgbk
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— Christopher C. Cuomo (@ChrisCuomo) September 28, 2017
Hello racist dog whistle – Trump says NFL owners are "scared" of their players https://t.co/QzNjNP4lyS
— (((DeanObeidallah))) (@Deanofcomedy) September 28, 2017
Trump is now pushing the idea NFL owners are "afraid" of players. Racist stereotypes are why the protests started. https://t.co/eELRKIZg3D
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) September 28, 2017
It is unclear at this point whether Smith, who is African-American, will also be criticized for the racial undertones of his statement.