Of all the events that were almost unimaginable before Donald Trump took office, the disinvitation of the the Philadelphia Eagles to the White House less than 24 hours before their scheduled visit has to rank high.
Traditionally, NFL games feature paroxysms of patriotism—the fading contrails of fighter jets; American flags the size of small nation-states—and the White House visit of the Super Bowl champions has been an easy photo opp for all involved. But that was then.
“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow,” Trump’s statement read. “They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”
As it happens, none of the Eagles players were among those who kneeled during the anthem last year. “So many lies,” former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted, continuing, “1. Not many people were going to go 2. No one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem 3. The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military.”
Several Eagles have been outspoken social-justice activists and vocal opponents of Trump—including Malcolm Jenkins, who told me earlier this year that Trump was just “like any other troll”—and Trump was right about one thing: A “smaller delegation” really was planning to attend the event. According to Politico, 81 members of the Eagles had submitted their names for security clearance, but all but a handful were backing out. “It’s a cowardly act to cancel the celebration because the majority of the people don’t want to see you,” Smith tweeted. “To make it about the anthem is foolish.”
Philadelphia’s mayor Jim Kenney criticized Trump for the last-minute decision. “Me, me, me, me. That’s all he thinks about every day,” Kenney said in an interview with CNN. “It’s not about the country. It’s not about the citizens. It’s not about what’s best for this country. It’s about what’s best for him. And that’s not what the presidency is about.”
“Eagles fans understand that our players are individuals who can stand up for themselves, and stand up for what they believe in,” Kenney added. “Donald Trump … is never going to change that.”
Trump has a well-documented sensitivity to crowd sizes. But for the NFL, there is more at play. The White House has tried to make this about the NFL’s new policy requiring players to stand during the national anthem or stay in the locker room, telling The Washington Post that players were staying away because they were angry about the new rules. Whether or not the administration is trying to inflame the culture war that Trump began when he attacked “son of a bitch” players who protested racial injustice during the anthem, it’s impossible to separate from the owners’ eager and, so far, unsuccessful attempt to placate Trump and deflect attention from players kneeling.
Many associated with the administration initially declared victory. “STILL NOT SICK OF #WINNING!!!!” tweeted Donald Trump Jr. in response to the new regulations. But on Monday night, Trump moved the goal posts. “Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!”
The owners are quickly learning that if you give Trump an inch, he will take a mile. But if the Eagles are any indication, it appears the owners have in fact managed to unite the players—just perhaps not in the way that they intended.