By DARLENE SUPERVILLE
WEST PALM BEACH — President Donald Trump expressed appreciation for U.S. service members on Super Bowl Sunday, saying their bravery and sacrifice help make occasions like the year's most-watched football game possible and renewing his criticism of NFL players who kneel during the national anthem.
"Though many of our nation's service members are unable to be home with family and friends to enjoy this evening's American tradition, they are always in our thoughts and prayers," Trump said in a statement about the game shortly before the matchup between the defending New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles got underway.
"We owe these heroes the greatest respect for defending our liberty and our American way of life. Their sacrifice is stitched into each star and every stripe of our Star-Spangled Banner," Trump said. "We hold them in our hearts and thank them for our freedom as we proudly stand for the National Anthem."
The president has been critical of NFL players who exercise their right to freedom of expression by kneeling during the national anthem to protest unfair police treatment of minorities. Trump says the practice is disrespectful to service members, and he has criticized the league and team owners for allowing the kneeling to continue.
Trump hosted a Super Bowl watch party at his private golf club in West Palm Beach. He and first lady Melania Trump arrived just before kickoff. The Florida Atlantic University Marching Band marked Trump's arrival by playing Hail to the Chief, Boogie Wonderland and Shut Up and Dance.
Trump thanked band members for a "great job" and complimented their "great talent" before entering the club.
The president didn't say which team he was rooting for. He punted when he was asked his preference earlier this week at the White House, saying "I better not get involved."
However, Trump is good friends with Patriots owner Bob Kraft. Trump has said Kraft telephoned him in December, as he prepared to sign a package of tax cuts into law, to tell him that the tax bill is "incredible."
The president spent the weekend at his estate in nearby Palm Beach and returned to Washington late Sunday.
Shortly after the Eagles won 41-33, Trump tweeted, "Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles on a great Super Bowl victory!"