Donald Trump delivered a veiled swipe at American footballers who kneel during the national anthem as he gave a State of Union address that sought to unify the country.
The president alluded to his public spat with professional athletes who led protests against racial injustice by kneeling during the anthem before games, declaring that paying tribute to the flag is a "civic duty."
After hailing guest of honour Preston Sharp, a 12-year-old who won praise for placing US flags and flowers at the graves of veterans since 2015, the president said: "Preston’s reverence for those who have served our nation reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem."
His remarks drew loud cheers from the Republicans in the chamber.
Mr Trump has hurled harsh rhetoric against football players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality.
President Trump addresses "why we proudly stand for the national anthem" during #SOTU, which appeared to allude to NFL players' anthem protest. https://t.co/q18EZzVe9p pic.twitter.com/AndSPgO9oK
— CBS News (@CBSNews) January 31, 2018
The president has said those players should be fired and called on fans to boycott their games.
The protests began in 2016 with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the anthem at NFL games to protest against racial inequality and police misconduct.
His words during the address immediately drew criticism on social media.
"Why we proudly stand for the national anthem."
We can hear the dog whistle from over here. #TakeAKnee
— ACLU (@ACLU) January 31, 2018
We can support our troops and honor our heroes, while still criticizing the state of police brutality and broken justice system in America. I can sit or stand, put my hand on my heart or not—THAT is the freedom they have fought for and won. I too love my country. #SOTU #TakeAKnee
— Erin Schrode (@ErinSchrode) January 31, 2018
Mr Trump’s apparent dig at the protest comes ahead of Sunday’s Super Bowl, the biggest event in North American sports.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last week praised the athletes as political activists.
Donald Trump’s State of the Union address
"We live in a society that’s pretty fractured and when you appeal to a large audience … those kinds of issues get a tremendous focus," Goodell said in a speech to the Economic Club of New York. "Even though we may disagree with the form of protest it forced us to listen.
"We really took the time to understand them. I think we could use a little more of that in our society."
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