By Scott Malone
BOSTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Donald Trump kept up his verbal battle with National Football League over players who drop to one knee during the national anthem, saying on Monday their acts of protest had nothing to do with racism.
Dozens of NFL players, coaches and even some owners joined in silent protest at games on Sunday against Trump's call for owners to fire players who do not stand during the "Star-Spangled Banner."
"The issue of kneeling has nothing to do with race. It is about respect for our Country, Flag and National Anthem. NFL must respect this!" Trump said in a Twitter post on Monday.
Some black athletes disputed that statement.
"It is about race. I it is about inequalities in our communities," Miami Dolphins player Michael Thomas told CNN. "People are going to continue to ... voice their opinion, they're going to show demonstrations, they're going to continue to protest because this is what we're trying to shed light on."
The Republican kicked off his battle with the largest-grossing U.S. professional sports league at a political rally in Alabama on Friday, when he said any protesting player was a "son of a bitch" who should be "fired."
He praised the NASCAR auto-racing league, which saw no signs of demonstrations on Sunday.
The controversy highlighted a deep political rift that Trump's election has exposed across many segments of American society.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began the practice of kneeling during the anthem in protest of police brutality and racial inequities last year. No NFL team has signed Kaepernick for this season.
Not all players joined in the protests. Notably, Pittsburgh Steelers lineman Alejandro Villanueva, a U.S. Army veteran, stood alone at the entrance to the stadium for the anthem on Sunday while his teammates waited in the locker room.
Villanueva jerseys and other apparel have outsold those of all other players in the past 24 hours, said a spokesman for online retailer Fanatics, which operates NFLShop.com.
The next test of NFL sentiment comes in Phoenix, Arizona, when the Cardinals host the Dallas Cowboys at 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT). Neither team has had a player conspicuously kneel during the anthem.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has expressed pride that members of his team have not joined in anthem protests, calling other athletes' actions "really disappointing."
Trump called for a boycott of games, asking fans not to go to stadiums or to watch on TV. Early reports from the major networks on Sunday viewership were mixed.
Marketing experts said the protests and Trump's boycott call could draw more fans to watch games.
"Whatever side you're on, it means a lot more people are talking about it," said Tara Walpert Levy, vice president of agency and media solutions at Google.
CBS Corp said overall viewership of games it broadcast on Sunday was up 4 percent from last year and 1 percent from last week.
NBC, owned by Comcast Corp, said viewership for its Sunday night game was down compared with the prior week.
Prominent players continued to speak out against Trump on Monday.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, one of the league's best-known faces who has said he regards Trump as a friend, on Monday said he disagreed with Trump's remarks.
"I thought it was just divisive," Brady told Boston's WEEI radio.
Nascar star Dale Earnhardt Jr raised a similar sentiment on Twitter.
"All Americans R granted rights 2 peaceful protests," Earnhardt wrote. He then quoted the late President John F. Kennedy: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."
(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey in Washington, Gene Cherry in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dave Ingram and Sheila Dang in New York and Frank Pigue in Toronto; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Lisa Shumaker)