US vice president Mike Pence left the NFL game on Sunday. Photo: Joe Songer/AL.com via AP

WASHINGTON – US vice president Mike Pence walked out of an Indianapolis Colts game on Sunday when some players kneeled for the national anthem, stoking controversy even as Colin Kaepernick said he would abandon the gesture he began.

In the third NFL weekend since US President Donald Trump said league owners should fire players who kneel during pre-game broadcasts of the US national anthem, Pence tweeted that he departed after seeing players kneel during “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

“I left today’s Colts game because President Trump and I will not dignify any event that disrespects our soldiers, our Flag, or our National Anthem,” Pence wrote on Twitter.

While Colts players stood arm-in-arm at their home game in Indianapolis, more than 20 of the San Francisco 49ers players knelt during the song as they have for weeks, a move that should have been little shock to Pence, an Indiana native who tweeted his photo in Colts cap and shirt before the game.

“While everyone is entitled to their own opinions, I don’t think it’s too much to ask NFL players to respect the Flag and our National Anthem,” Pence tweeted.

“I stand with President Trump, I stand with our soldiers, and I will always stand for our Flag and our National Anthem.”

Trump took credit for the departure of Pence and his wife from the stadium in a tweet later, saying: “I asked @VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and @SecondLady Karen.”

NFL players, mostly African-Americans, have steadfastly said they are kneeling to protest racial injustice and social inequality, reasons given by Kaepernick when he began the movement last year, and not to in any way disrespect soldiers, citing the very freedoms of speech the flag in part represents.

The move began following the deaths of several unarmed African-American men during confrontations with police.

Kaepernick, who has not been signed since being dropped by the 49ers in March, told CBS Sports he has been working out and keeping a low profile in hopes of landing a spot on an NFL club.

In the off-camera interview, Kaepernick also said he would not kneel during anthems if signed by a new club.

Trump angered NFL stars, team owners and league officials last month after describing players who had protested against racial injustice by refusing to stand for the anthem as “sons of bitches”.

More players than ever made a symbolic move on the next NFL Sunday, many players locking arms in a sign of unity, some of them being joined by team owners in a sign of defiance to Trump’s remarks.

Last weekend, Trump again raised the issue on Twitter, demanding players stand for the anthem.