ATLANTA >> President Donald Trump, who has criticized professional football players for kneeling during the national anthem, stood on the field here today as it played before the College Football Playoff championship game between the University of Alabama and the University of Georgia.
Flanked by members of the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, Trump placed his right hand over his heart, just below an American flag pin on his lapel, and mouthed the words while the Zac Brown Band sang the anthem. Afterward, Trump quickly retreated to the security of a private box.
The president’s appearance at the game seemed intended to emphasize his furious critique of athletes for using football games as a place for protests. Neither team’s players went onto the field today until after the anthem was played, as is standard at college football games.
Earlier in the day, during a speech to farmers in Nashville, Trump repeated his frustration with the players who knelt during NFL games.
“We want our flag respected. We want our flag respected. And we want our national anthem respected, also,” the president said to chants of “USA!” from the audience at the Farm Bureau’s annual convention. “There’s plenty of space for people to express their views and to protest, but we love our flag, we love our anthem.”
Trump made no remarks after entering the stadium to loud cheers and a smattering of boos from the enthusiastic college football fans. In interviews before the game, Trump’s supporters and critics alike dryly noted that he was appearing at one of the country’s showiest sporting events in a glittering, $1.5 billion stadium in a congressional district that he condemned last year on Twitter as “falling apart” and “crime infested.”
But Trump’s appearance placed him at an event that drew widespread attention from two states he carried in the 2016 presidential race and would be certain to need to win re-election in 2020. Still, observers of Southern politics — with allegiances to both teams — said Trump’s visit was unlikely to sway many voters inside or outside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Charles S. Bullock III, a University of Georgia political scientist who was not planning to attend the game, said he expected that the legions of Crimson Tide and Bulldogs faithful were more focused on the pigskin than the president.
“The fans will be concentrating on what’s going to happen on the field,” he said hours before kickoff.
Instead, Bullock said he believed the stop in Atlanta — and any cheering from the stands — would probably serve only to stroke Trump’s ego.
“This is just a sideshow,” he said, “but for him, it’s important.”
ESPN, which televised the game and has been a target of Trump’s Twitter barbs for years, said it had requested an interview with the president for its broadcast and was turned down.
“The president shows up at a sporting event, ideally, you’d document it and you’d like to talk to him,” Stephanie Druley, an ESPN executive, said Sunday. “I don’t think this president makes it any different, quite honestly. I don’t think we have a need to mend fences.”