US Soccer has dismissed claims that members of the women’s football team turned their backs on a World War Two veteran performing the national anthem ahead of a match.
Pete DuPré played the song on his harmonica before the US team’s Olympic warm-up game against Mexico on Monday.
Video showed some players facing to the side instead of towards the veteran.
Outrage exploded online as conservative critics accused the players of disrespecting Mr DuPré.
Some suggested the players had turned away in protest.
But as anger grew on social media, US Soccer – the sport’s governing body – addressed the furore in tweets that said the criticism of the US Women’s National Team (USWNT) was unfounded.
“To be clear, no one turned their back on WWII Veteran Pete DuPré during tonight’s anthem,” one tweet read. “Some USWNT players were simply looking at the flag on a pole in one end of the stadium.”
Pictures from the match show an American flag where those players were looking at the Rentschler Field stadium in the eastern US state of Connecticut.
In a later tweet, a video showed American players, including striker Megan Rapinoe, signing the 98-year-old veteran’s football as he sat in a wheelchair.
“This is respect,” the US Soccer tweet read.
On the pitch, every player on the US team clapped for Mr DuPré before their 4-0 victory over Mexico.
Supporters of the US team accused some commentators of attempting to smear the players and spread misinformation about their actions.
On conservative TV channel Fox News, one sports journalist attempted to explain the seething reaction, saying it was “emblematic of where we are with sports now”.
“A huge percentage of American sports fans totally think it’s believable that the US Women’s Soccer team would turn their back on a 98-year-old World War Two Veteran,” Fox Sports commentator Clay Travis said.
The US women’s football team has attracted much criticism for the views expressed by some of its players.
Rapinoe – its star player – has consistently spoken out about racism, sexism and homophobia, and has been a leading voice in the campaign for equal pay for the US women’s team.
In 2016, Rapinoe took a knee during the national anthem in a show of solidarity with former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who made the same gesture to highlight racial inequality.
Sporting protests of this kind have become contentious, generating heated debate in the US and across the world.
In recent years several high-profile athletes have used their sporting platforms to hold protests.
The most recent to do so was American hammer thrower Gwen Berry, who silently turned her body away from the US flag during the national anthem at Olympic trials last month.
This fuelled debate about the act of protest in sport ahead of the Olympic Games in Tokyo next month.
In April, the International Olympic Committee announced it was upholding a rule that bans protests at the Games.