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This file photo taken on September 24, 2017 shows President Donald Trump speaking to the press while boarding Air Force One at Morristown Airport in Morristown, New Jersey.

BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

After a hotly political weekend in the National Football League, a few of the league's corporate sponsors have started speaking out -- sort of.

Ford Motor Co., Under Armour Inc. and Anheuser-Busch InBev SA issued statements that affirmed NFL players' rights to kneel during the pre-game national anthem, while also sounding patriotic notes and affirming their support of the flag.

Ford, for example, said the automaker would "respect individuals' rights to express their views, even if they are not ones we share. That's part of what makes America great." In a tweet Sunday, Under Armour said it "stands for the flag and by our athletes for free speech, expression and a unified America."

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The anthem protests, which began with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick last year, were originally meant to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. Some people see them as anti-American displays, and over the weekend, President Donald Trump called for team owners to fire players who refused to stand up during the Star-Spangled Banner.

The tangled responses are the latest version of the challenges faced by corporations in a world in which the president makes public demands and denouncements of companies via Twitter. General Motors Co., Campbell Soup Co., ESPN parent Walt Disney Co. and Uber Technologies Inc. have all faced calls for boycotts related to their perceived support of -- or distance from -- the White House.

"Because it is a divisive issue, it's not a surprise that companies are not willing to stake a very definite claim,'' said Kabrina Krebel Chang, an associate professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business who studies corporate involvement in social issues. "That could be a statement that is very middle-of-the-road but is also very consistent. They're not going to please everyone."

Initial silence

After Trump criticized players at NFL games who take a knee during the national anthem, players and coaches across the league Sunday joined the protests. Several NFL owners, many of whom were million-dollar donors to Trump's campaign, joined in support for their players.

Two sponsors, starting with Nike, made more definitive statements. The world's largest sportswear brand and maker of NFL uniforms said it "supports athletes and their right to freedom of expression on issues that are of great importance to our society."

Hyundai Motor Co. also took a more direct stance: "We stand for and respect individuals' freedoms to express their First Amendment rights in any peaceful manner in which they choose. We also stand for inclusion, freedom and all that represents those values."

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The vast majority of the NFL's 37 sponsors have remained silent. The league earns $1.25 billion from its corporate partners, who are eager to be affiliated with the most popular sport in the U.S. and the national TV audience it attracts.

For Sunday's broadcast, the ratings were mixed. Matchups on Fox and NBC drew fewer viewers than a year earlier, while CBS said the number of people tuning in rose. Viewership for the entire season has been down.

"Tremendous backlash against the NFL and its players for disrespect of our country," Trump tweeted late Monday.

Meanwhile, fans in favor of and against the protests are calling for a total boycott. Hashtags #BoycottNFLSponsors and #PunchThemInTheWallet are circulating on both pro-Trump and pro-player social media. Some fans tweeted directly at the companies, saying they were no longer customers. The hashtag #standforouranthem, tweeted by Trump, was also trending Monday.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders says U.S. President Donald Trump's criticisms of anthem protesters over the weekend is not focused on race, but on celebrating the flag and unity in the country. Reuters
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