Georgia Republicans responded with disgust to the wave of NFL players across the nation who demonstrated during the national anthem after President Donald Trump slammed the league and its players over the weekend.
A leading Democratic candidate for governor, meanwhile, said the players who knelt during the anthem were expressing their free speech rights in their own way to honor the flag and the country.
The split mirrors the national divide after Trump criticized players for kneeling during the national anthem and the owners who allowed the displays. That led to dozens of players, coaches and owners to stage their own protests on Sunday and Monday.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said he was “baffled” by the criticism aimed at Trump. State Sen. Rick Jeffares said “the NFL needs to wake up.” And former state Sen. Hunter Hill, a combat veteran, said the military deserves our respect and not “political stunts.”
“The least we can do is salute the flag they carry and stand for the anthem that honors their sacrifice,” said Hill.
Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, one of two Democrats in the race, said the diversity of opinions is part of what makes the nation exceptional.
“You honor the flag and the country it stands for when you salute, but also when you kneel,” she said. “Because enmeshed in its fibers is the right to free speech, to expression, and to stand up for what you believe in. And sometimes, to kneel for it as well.”
Here are their full comments. (We didn’t immediately hear back from Republicans David Shafer and Michael Williams. Democrat Stacey Abrams declined to comment.)
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a Republican candidate for governor:
“I'm baffled at talking heads who condemn the Commander in Chief for defending patriotism. The left has totally lost touch with Middle America, people who love this country, take pride in it and would fight to preserve it. No one has to stand for the National Anthem, but everyone should. Because we're the greatest country in the world, Americans have the right to offensive speech. And other Americans who are offended by that speech can celebrate their freedom to vote with their feet and their wallets, just as President Trump suggested.”
Former state Rep. Geoff Duncan, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor:
"I never had a problem standing for the national anthem during my playing days and neither should anyone else who enjoys the freedoms that we have today. To our veterans, active military, and police officers, I thank you for everything you do. Our country needs a dialogue on race relations and how to foster a positive way forward. I don’t believe protesting the national anthem is the right start to that conversation.”
Former state Rep. Stacey Evans, a Democratic candidate for governor:
“The test of fidelity to our nation’s values, to freedom of speech, to the Constitution, is not when it is easy, but when it is hard. What makes our nation special is its difference, not just from the rest of the world, but within its borders. Our diversity of faiths, and people, and of opinions, is what makes America both exceptional and great. You honor the flag and the country it stands for when you salute, but also when you kneel. Because enmeshed in its fibers is the right to free speech, to expression, and to stand up for what you believe in. And sometimes, to kneel for it as well.”
Former state Sen. Hunter Hill, a Republican candidate for governor:
"During three combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, my men and I fought for every American's right to peacefully protest. But I believe each man and woman currently fighting for our freedoms deserves better from supposed role models here at home. Our war fighters deserve our respect and our full support - not political stunts.
“Our flag and our anthem mean something. Each time we place our hands over our hearts, we are remembering the sacrifices of our sons and daughters and supporting the shared American values many have fought and died to protect. The least we can do is salute the flag they carry and stand for the anthem that honors their sacrifice."
State Sen. Rick Jeffares, a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor:
"Alejandro Villanueva, an offensive tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers and a former Army Ranger who served our country in Afghanistan, was the only member of his team to be on the field for yesterday's anthem. He proudly stood for our flag and I proudly stand for it too. The NFL needs to wake up!”
Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican candidate for governor:
"Standing up during the National Anthem is not about politics - it's about people. When we rise, we show our appreciation for our active duty military. We express our gratitude for our veterans and wounded warriors. We stand in admiration for our fallen heroes who gave the full measure of devotion for our freedom. We live in a free country because of the sacrifices made by our servicemen and women. If you want respect for yourself or your cause, you have to show it first. You can peacefully protest a politician or policy but don't insult the same people who made that freedom possible. Now, more than ever, we must #StandUp and honor America's heroes."