Republican U.S. Senate candidate Corey Stewart on Wednesday condemned the NFL players who have kneeled during the national anthem, saying they got their anti-American views from universities.

“The players represented by this organization behind me are not heroes,” Stewart said at a news conference in Washington outside the NFL Players Association. “They are overpaid, arrogant, disrespectful, ungrateful, unpatriotic.”

He added: “Disrespect for our country starts with universities.”

Some NFL players, mostly African-Americans, last year joined a protest by then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneeled during the national anthem in protest of police brutality.

On Sunday, many more players, coaches and even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones joined in some type of protest or locked arms before or during the national anthem in response to comments from President Donald Trump in Alabama on Friday saying NFL players who protested during the anthem should be fired.

Stewart, the former chairman of Trump’s campaign in Virginia who is running for the GOP nomination to go up against Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., next year, said he sided with Trump.

“There is very little that unites our country other than our love of our country … but what we do have is respect for our flag, respect for our country and our love for it,” he said.

Stewart also called for Congress to strip the NFL’s federal anti-trust exemption to punish the league for allowing the protests during the anthem. And he said the NFL often limits free speech, saying former Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III was prevented from wearing a T-shirt that mentioned Jesus at a news conference. However, the shirt in question in that 2014 incident would have violated the NFL’s strict attire rules on personal messages, which don’t relate to religion.

The NFL Players Association in a statement Saturday said the peaceful demonstrations by some players “are protected speech and a freedom that has been paid for by the sacrifice of men and women throughout history.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, teams and owners also issued statements as the conversation consumed national dialogue in sports and politics.

“Divisive comments like these demonstrate an unfortunate lack of respect for the NFL, our great game and all of our players, and a failure to understand the overwhelming force for good our clubs and players represent in our communities,” read Goodell’s statement on Trump’s comments.

When asked in a phone interview after his news conference about police brutality, Stewart said, “Here’s the thing. You don’t disrespect the flag, ever. Nobody is claiming that America is perfect ... (but) you’ll be on one knee for the rest of your life.”

When asked about Vietnam War-era protests by boxer Muhammad Ali against the Vietnam War, Stewart said, “I don’t think what he did was right.”

Stewart added: Opposing the war “in retrospect, it was the right thing to do. But what you don’t do is disrespect your country.”

Kaine spokesman Ian Sams said by email: “We will let Corey keep doing his best Donald Trump imitation. Senator Kaine is focused on representing all Virginians and fighting to save their health care.”

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pwilson@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @patrickmwilson

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