President Donald Trump's criticism of players who kneel during the national anthem sparked a mass increase in such protests around the National Football League yesterday, as about 200 players sat, knelt or raised their fists in defiance during early games.

A week ago, just six players protested.

Most of the players yesterday locked arms with their teammates - some standing, others kneeling - in a show of solidarity. A handful of teams stayed off the field until after The Star-Spangled Banner to avoid the issue altogether.

As he prepared to board Air Force One to return to Washington from New Jersey, Trump said the players protesting the anthem were "very disrespectful to our country" and called again on owners to stop what he considers unpatriotic displays in America's most popular sport.

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"This has nothing to do with race," Trump said. "This has to do with respect for our country."

The President's attack on athletes turned the anthems - usually sung during commercials - into must-watch television shown live by the networks and Yahoo!, which streamed the game in London. In some NFL stadiums, crowds booed or yelled at players to stand. There was also some applause.

The NFL and its players, often at odds, used yesterday's anthems to show unity. One of Trump's biggest supporters in the NFL, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, joined the chorus when he expressed "deep disappointment" with Trump.

The protests started more than a year ago when former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the anthem as a protest of police treatment of minorities. This season, no team has signed him, and some supporters believe NFL owners are avoiding him because of the controversy.

A handful of white players didn't stand yesterday, but the vast majority of those actively protesting were black.

Defensive star Von Miller was among the large group of Denver Broncos who took a knee in Buffalo, where Bills running back LeSean McCoy stretched during the anthem.

"We felt like President Trump's speech was an assault on our most cherished right, freedom of speech," said Miller, who normally steers clear of politics and social issues.

Dozens more players protested before the Raiders-Redskins game, the final one of the day and not far from the White House in Landover, Maryland.

In Chicago, the Pittsburgh Steelers stayed in the tunnel except for one player, Army veteran Alejandro Villanueva, who stood outside with a hand over his heart. Both the Seahawks and Titans stayed inside until after the national anthem was over in Nashville, a throwback to the pre-2009 NFL when teams, not the league, set pre-game policy regarding players standing on the sideline for the anthem.

A handful of NFL players had been continuing Kaepernick's protest this season, but that ballooned yesterday following Trump's weekend rant.

The President's delving into the NFL protests started by Kaepernick brought new attention and angered many players who took one insult - "Get that son of a b**** off the field right now. Out! He's fired" - as a personal attack on their mothers.

"I'm a son of a queen," Falcons defensive lineman Grady Jarrett said.

Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady was among the New England Patriots who locked arms in solidarity in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Aaron Rodgers did the same with his teammates in Green Bay.

"Standing with locked arms is good, kneeling is not acceptable. Bad ratings!" Trump tweeted yesterday.

The issue reverberated across the Atlantic, where about two dozen players took a knee during the US anthem at Wembley Stadium.

"Me taking a knee doesn't change the fact that I support our military, I'm a patriot and I love my country," Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. "But I also recognise there are some social injustices in this country and today I wanted to take a knee in support of my brothers who have been doing it."

Alexander said he'll go back to standing for the anthem next week.

"I just wanted to show them that I was with them today, especially in the backdrop of our President making the comments about our players, about their mothers," Alexander said. "And then you put that in conjunction with how he tried to grey-area Nazism and KKK members as being fine people, I had to take a knee."

Among the strongest criticisms of the President on Sunday was this from Saints coach Sean Payton: "I think we need a little bit more wisdom in that office," he said of the White House. "I want that guy to be one of the smarter guys in the room and it seems like every time he's opening up his mouth it's something that is dividing our country and not pulling us together."

- AP