President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, September 18, 2017.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in New York, September 18, 2017.

President Donald Trump appears to have no plans to back off the controversy over National Football League protests.

On Wednesday, he took his criticism of the league a step further, claiming that team owners have not moved to stop demonstrations because they are “afraid” of their players.

“I have so many friends that are owners and they’re in a box,” Trump told Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” in comments that aired Thursday. “I’ve spoken to a couple of them and they say, ‘We are in a situation where we have to do something.'”

“I think they’re afraid of their players, you want to know the truth. And I think it’s disgraceful,” he added.

In recent seasons, primarily black professional football players have knelt during the national anthem to protest racial inequality in the United States. The protests started after former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year began kneeling during the anthem to protest police mistreatment of black Americans.

Trump blew open the national debate about the protests on Saturday when he urged owners to “fire” the “son of a bitch” who kneels during the anthem.

On Sunday, some players continued to kneel while some teams, along with their owners, linked arms in solidarity. Other teams stayed in the locker room during the anthem.

Trump’s comments have sparked debate over whether the president should be using his platform to urge employers to take action against employees exercising their freedom of speech. Trump has ties to the NFL, as several wealthy team owners gave large sums to committees supporting his election and his inauguration.

His comments to Fox brought fresh questions about the racial undertones of his NFL remarks. ESPN host Jemele Hill — an outspoken Trump critic — called them “peak racial demagoguery” on Thursday morning.

Trump has repeatedly said his criticism with the NFL has nothing to do with race.

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