NFL owners were reportedly motivated by fear of incendiary comments from Donald Trump when devising the league’s new anthem policy. And that hand-wringing over Trump was further validated on Monday, when the President canceled the Eagles’ White House visit less than 24 hours before the scheduled ceremony to celebrate the Super Bowl LII champions. Clearly, the President is not done using the NFL and the anthem issue to serve his own political agenda.
Many Eagles players, including safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long, said they wouldn’t be attending the White House because they don’t agree with Trump’s politics, not because the president insists that NFL players must stand for the anthem or “maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.” For the players, not attending Trump’s White House ceremony has never been about the anthem issue. It’s about disagreeing with Trump’s views on policing, criminal justice, and racial inequality.
Trump’s ego might have been bruised by the report that fewer than 10 Eagles players would be attending, so rather than host a sparsely attended ceremony he uninvited the whole organization. Quarterback Carson Wentz said recently that he would attend if the team as a whole decided they would go.
The Eagles would have been far from the first champions to arrive at the White House with less-than-perfect attendance. Players from various teams across various sports have skipped White House visits for presidents from both parties. In 1984, Larry Bird turned down a Celtics championship visit with President Reagan for unspecified reasons, and remarked in a radio interview, “If the President wants to see me, he knows where to find me.” Last year, only 34 Patriots attended Trump’s ceremony with notable absences from Tom Brady (personal reasons) to Chris Long, Devin McCourty and Martellus Bennett (political reasons). The Astros were honored at the White House in March, but star players Carlos Correa and Carlos Beltran were absent. The Golden State Warriors decided to reject the invitation to the White House in November after Trump tweeted to un-invite Warriors star Steph Curry because Curry had hesitated to accept the invite. Trump’s vitriol could also be partly motivated by revenge against Eagles owner Jeff Lurie, who has spoken out against Trump. In tapes leaked from a league meeting to the New York Times, Lurie called Trump’s regime, “one disastrous presidency.”
A White House statement said that while Eagles players are no longer welcome today, Eagles fans are still invited to the White House for “a different type of ceremony, one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem.” Some of those fans will surely feel like they’re making a decision: Support the players who won the city’s first Super Bowl title by skipping the ceremony, or show up and give tacit approval to the President’s decision to un-invite those players? No Eagles players kneeled during the anthem before regular season or postseason games last season. Trump’s anthem-focused statement reveals that he is ignoring that fact, trying to twist the players’ dislike of his politics into an anti-American sentiment.
In drafting its anthem policy, NFL owners ignored the players in order to placate Trump. It clearly didn’t work. And from now on, professional sports teams should think twice before accepting an invitation to the White House while Trump is President. It’s yet another benign event that has become politically charged.
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