(AP) - President Donald Trump says National Football League owners should fire players who kneel during the national anthem. And he's encouraging spectators to walk out in protest.
In an extended riff during a freewheeling rally speech in Alabama Friday night, Trump also bemoaned that football games have become less violent.
"They're ruining the game," he complained.
Several athletes, including NFL players, have refused to stand during "The Star-Spangled Banner" to protest of the treatment of blacks by police.
Trump says those players are disrespecting the flag and deserve to lose their jobs.
"That's a total disrespect of our heritage. That's a total disrespect of everything that we stand for," he said, encouraging owners to act.
"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," Trump said to loud applause.
Trump also predicted that any owner who went through with his encouragement would become "the most popular person in this country" - at least for a week.
Trump, who was in Alabama campaigning for Sen. Luther Strange, also blamed a decline in NFL ratings on the nation's interest in "yours truly" as well as what he described as a decline in violence in the game.
He said players are being thrown out for aggressive tackles, and it's "not the same game."
The NFL has made several efforts to reduce violence in the sport, particularly hits that may cause damage to the head. A July report on 202 former football players found evidence of a debilitating brain disease linked to repeated head blows in nearly all of them. The league has agreed to pay $1 billion to retired players who claimed it misled them about the concussion dangers of playing football.
During his campaign, Trump often expressed nostalgia for the "old days" - claiming, for example, that protesters at his rallies would have been carried out on stretchers back then. He recently suggested police officers should be rougher with criminals and shouldn't protect their heads when pushing them into quad cars.
It's also not the first time he's raised the kneeling issue. Earlier this year he took credit for the fact that former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the trend of kneeling during the anthem, hadn't been signed by an NFL team.
Trump said the protest was the top reason NFL viewership had waned this season.
"You know what's hurting the game more than that? When people like yourselves turn on television and you see those people taking the knee when they're playing our great national anthem," he said.
Trump encouraged his supporters to pick up and leave the stadium next time they spot a player failing to stand.
"I guarantee things will stop," he said.
Colvin reported from Washington.