Donald Trump was the subject of startlingly strong abuse from major sports stars on Saturday, after he criticised NFL players protesting racial against injustice and appeared to withdraw an invitation for the Golden State Warriors to visit the White House, breaking a tradition dating back to the Reagan years.
On Friday, point guard Steph Curry, the NBA champions’ star player, told reporters he planned to vote no when the players came together to decide whether to visit Trump in Washington. The Warriors could “inspire some change” and “send a statement” by snubbing the president, Curry said.
On Saturday morning, Trump tweeted: “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team, Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”
That prompted spiralling criticism of the president, who at a rally in Alabama the night before had abused NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem. The Cleveland Cavaliers star forward LeBron James called the president a “bum” while the Buffalo Bills running back LeSean McCoy went further, calling Trump an “asshole”.
Even NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was critical, saying in a statement: “Divisive comments like [Trump’s] demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL.”
In June, a day after the Warriors defeated the Cavaliers to win a second NBA title in three seasons, an unconfirmed CNBC report suggested the Warriors might skip the White House visit. Reached by the Guardian then, the team did not deny the report.
“Today is all about celebrating our championship,” the Warriors said in a statement. “We have not received an invitation to the White House, but will make those decisions when and if necessary.”
It was unclear if the team had received a formal invitation between then and Saturday morning. On Friday, general manager Bob Myers said discussions with the White House had been held and said owner Joe Lacob would be involved in the final decision.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Myers added.
On Saturday, a message to the Warriors requesting clarification was not immediately returned. There was no immediate White House comment.
Trump’s announcement from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey was his second criticism of political dissent in professional sports in less than 24 hours. In a fiery speech in Huntsville, Alabama on Friday he unleashed a sensational broadside against NFL players who have kneeled in protest during the national anthem.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” the president said.
He tweeted on the subject on Saturday afternoon, writing: “If a player wants the privilege of making millions of dollars in the NFL, or other leagues, he or she should not be allowed to disrespect our Great American Flag (or Country) and should stand for the National Anthem. If not, YOU’RE FIRED. Find something else to do!”
The tweet about Curry was sent approximately 20 minutes after the morning news program Fox & Friends aired an item on the player’s comments. Trump is a well-documented fan of the popular Fox News show; many observers have noticed its role in setting the president’s agenda.
James, a three-time visitor to the Obama White House after winning titles with the Miami Heat and the Cavaliers, launched an extraordinary outburst against Trump on Saturday morning, claiming Curry’s withdrawal was rendered moot by the player’s previous remarks.
“U bum,” James tweeted. “Stephen Curry already said he ain’t going! So therefore ain’t no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
McCoy’s tweet read: “It’s really sad, man … our president is a asshole.”
The Houston Rockets point guard Chris Paul, who is president of the NBA players’ union, wrote: “With everything that’s going on in our country, why are YOU focused on who’s kneeling and visiting the White House??? #StayInYoLane.”
He added: “And I doubt he’s man enough to call any of those players a son of a bitch to their face.”
Curry, a two-time NBA most valuable player and the face of the Warriors franchise, made his feelings clear when asked to respond to comments from the chief executive of Under Armour, his primary sponsor, that Trump was “a real asset” to the country.
“I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et’,” Curry said, wryly.
Several key members of the Warriors set-up have previous spoken out against Trump. Coach Steve Kerr has been among the most vocal critics of the president’s policies, most notably his entry ban on travelers and refugees from six Muslim-majority countries.
Kerr’s father, Malcolm, was killed by two gunmen in 1984 while he was president of the American University of Beirut. Islamic Jihad, a precursor of Hezbollah, claimed responsibility for the murder.
Kerr said: “I would just say that as someone whose family member was a victim of terrorism, having lost my father, if we’re trying to combat terrorism by banishing people from coming to this country, by really going against the principles of what our country is about and creating fear, it’s the wrong way of going about it.
“If anything, we could be breeding anger and terror. So I’m completely against what’s happening.”
John F Kennedy was the first president to host the NBA champions, when the Boston Celtics visited in January 1963. The visit became an annual occurrence under Ronald Reagan. Golden State visited Barack Obama after winning the title in 2015.