WASHINGTON (AFP) – The Pittsburgh Penguins head coach defended his team’s decision to visit the White House on Tuesday, amid controversy over Donald Trump’s attempts to silence a wave of sports protests.
Massachusetts-born Mike Sullivan insisted the visit “was not political,” but rather a celebration of the team’s Stanley Cup championship last season.
Sullivan said he would have no problem if his largely Canadian and Russian team would take a knee during the anthem.
“We are respectful of anyone’s right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit,” he said.
Scores of National Football League (NFL) players have taken a knee during the anthem in defiance of Trump, who has claimed the practice was an insult to the country, US flag and veterans.
Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick first began kneeling last year to highlight unjust treatment of African-Americans.
Trump’s tirade provoked defiance, with a large number of mostly black players dropping to one knee during the anthem, while other players stood with arms interlocked.
Both major parties have sought to stir America’s decades-old “Culture Wars,” but few political figures thrived on that division quite like Trump.
The Trump White House has sought to fuel the debate, using it in fundraising efforts and to energise supporters.