OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — Bruce Maxwell of the Oakland Athletics became the first major league baseball player to kneel during the national anthem Saturday, pulling the sport into a polarizing protest movement that has been criticized harshly by President Donald Trump.
Before a home game against the Texas Rangers, Maxwell dropped to a knee just outside Oakland's dugout, adopting a protest started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick in response to police treatment of blacks. The 26-year-old rookie catcher pressed his right hand against his heart, and teammates stood in a line next to him. Teammate Mark Canha, who is white, put his right hand on one of Maxwell's shoulders, and the two hugged after the anthem finished.
"Everybody watches sports and so everybody loves sports, so I felt this was the right thing for me to do personally," Maxwell said.
Maxwell's protest comes after Trump blasted football players and rescinded a White House invitation for NBA champion Stephen Curry in a two-day rant that targeted top professional athletes.
"That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for," Trump said of kneeling through the anthem. He added, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, you'd say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He's fired."
Maxwell informed A's manager Bob Melvin and general manager David Forst of his intention to kneel before Saturday's game. He also held a team meeting in which he addressed questions from teammates. Maxwell did not play in Oakland's 1-0 win.
Canha approached Maxwell after the meeting to offer his support.
"I could tell he was getting kind of choked up and emotional about his beliefs and how he feels about the racial discrimination that's going on in this country right now," Canha said. "I felt like every fiber in my being was telling me that he needed a brother today."
The Athletics released a statement on Twitter shortly after the anthem, saying they "respect and support all of our players' constitutional rights and freedom of expression" and "pride ourselves on being inclusive."
The league also issued a statement: "Major League Baseball has a longstanding tradition of honoring our nation prior to the start of our games. We also respect that each of our players is an individual with his own background, perspectives and opinions. We believe that our game will continue to bring our fans, their communities and our players together."
Maxwell was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, while his father was stationed there in the Army, but he grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, which is where Trump made his statements at a rally Friday.
"The racism in the South is disgusting," Maxwell said. "It bothers me, and it hits home for me because that's where I'm from. The racism in the South is pretty aggressive, and I dealt with it all the way through my childhood, and my sister went through it. I feel that that's something that needs to be addressed and that needs to be changed."
League executives and star players alike condemned Trump's words on Saturday, and Maxwell predicted on Twitter that athletes would begin kneeling in other sports following "comments like that coming from our president."
A few hours later, he followed through.
"This now has gone from just a BlackLives Matter topic to just complete inequality of any man or woman that wants to stand for Their rights!" Maxwell wrote.
Maxwell is decidedly patriotic and comes from a military family. His agent, Matt Sosnick, told The Associated Press that "the Maxwells' love and appreciation for our country is indisputable."
"Bruce has made it clear that he is taking a stand about what he perceives as racial injustices in this country, and his personal disappointment with President Trump's response to a number of professional athletes' totally peaceful, non-violent protests.
"Bruce has shared with both me and his teammates that his feelings have nothing to do with a lack of patriotism or a hatred of any man, but rather everything to do with equality for men, women and children regardless of race or religion."
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AP writer Ronald Blum contributed from New York.