The Philadelphia Eagles were supposed to visit the White House on Tuesday to celebrate their Super Bowl victory, but late Monday evening, President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the appearance, issuing a statement full of his trademark blend of pettiness, dishonesty, and juvenility.
“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow,” it 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.”
Now, instead of hosting the Eagles, Trump will “celebrate America” on Tuesday afternoon with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus.
First, a few facts: No Philadelphia Eagles player took a knee during the national anthem last season, nor did they remain in the locker room during the national anthem. Not a one. Remaining in the locker room during the national anthem wasn’t even an option for players until the NFL changed its national anthem policy — last month. Now, players are required to stand during the anthem if they are on the sidelines or else face a fine, but they have the option to remain in the locker room if they prefer. Trump doesn’t know if any Eagles players plan on staying in the locker room during the anthem next season, because he can’t see the future.
The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
At its core, Trump’s decision to cancel this event has nothing to do with the national anthem or respect for the military and everything to do with his ego. Per the Philadelphia Enquirer, fewer than 10 Eagles players out of a roster of 53 were planning on visiting the White House on Tuesday anyway. And we know how sensitive Trump is about crowd size.
It’s not at all surprising that Trump has once again distorted this issue with a callow display of histrionics, not-so-cleverly constructed for the purposes of stoking racism under the guise of patriotism. Attacking black NFL players for protesting racism and police brutality during the national anthem is one of Trump’s greatest hits, a simple way to do what he does best — exploiting and capitalizing off of the fear and hatred of black and brown bodies. He’s never going to stop.
NFL owners knew this. Trump telegraphed his playbook. And yet, last month they changed their national anthem policy — without consulting players — in an attempt to avoid further criticism from Trump and his Fox News bullhorn anyway.
They were somehow played a fool by the court jester in chief himself.
Last week, the Wall Street Journal released an article detailing the extent to which Trump’s tweets and rally cries influenced the way NFL owners handled their players protesting during the national anthem. Some NFL owners are friends of Trump, and he told them directly that this wasn’t an issue he was going to let go, according to depositions taken by Colin Kaepernick’s legal team as part of his collusion lawsuit against the league.
“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump said on the phone to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, according to a sworn deposition given by Jones and reviewed by the WSJ. “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
Did you hear that, NFL owners? You can’t win this one. Not when Trump is both opponent and referee.
Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling Mexicans rapists, energized his base by proposing a Muslim ban, and now casually suggests that black NFL players who don’t stand on the sidelines during the national anthem with a hand on their heart should be deported from this country as a way to distract his remaining supporters from the crimes and calamities perpetrated by his administration.
It is, as he put it, a winning issue for him.
So, what now is an NFL owner to do?
Well first of all, they need to focus on rebuilding their damaged relationships with their players, the men who put their minds and bodies on the line on a daily basis so that billionaires can further line their pockets.
They have to stop capitulating to Trump’s preferred framing of this issue: that these protests have anything to do with patriotism or supporting the troops. The players who are protesting are doing so because they want America to be better, and they’re willing to risk their careers in order to amplify the struggles that black Americans endure. These players recognize the privilege and the platform they have, and want to use it to make America better for everyone, especially those whom society has pushed to the margins. That’s pretty patriotic, if you ask me.
Do I expect NFL owners to do this? Of course not. But it’s the only way forward. If the league’s convictions were more deeply rooted, it wouldn’t be quite so vulnerable to the changing direction of the winds emanating from the White House.
Seventy percent of NFL players are black. Trump is never going to stop using them as pawns in his game of white nationalism chess. Every time the NFL counters one of Trump’s moves, Trump is going to change the rules and put the league back on the defensive. He clearly believes he’s above all rules, so there’s no use in the NFL trying to play by them.
NFL owners tried playing Trump’s game. All they did was further alienate their players, and continue to be attacked by the president. That’s what happens when you allow the fear of bad publicity to trump your principles — pun intended.