Trump's Battle with the NFL Has Reached Critical Mass

The president falsely linked the Super Bowl champions to national anthem protests

Credit: Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Update: The White House has released a second statement about the event.

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One of the unique perks to winning a major national sports title used to be traveling to the White House to meet the president. This hasn’t been the case since Trump took office, though, and what used to be routine, apolitical visits from America's top athletes are now mired in controversy, if they even happen at all. The latest team to be stripped of the honor of standing behind the president while he bloviates on the White House lawn is the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles, whose Tuesday afternoon visit was abruptly canceled on Monday by the White House.

"The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better," a statement from the president read. Trump used his Twitter account to elaborate Monday night and Tuesday morning.

The White House reportedly canceled the event after Trump became "infuriated" when he learned that only a small handful of Eagles planned to attend. Some White House officials heard that as few as four players had agreed to appear with the president. Trump still wants to hold an event, though, and at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, the United States Marine Band and the United Stats Army Chorus will perform "the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country" on the White House lawn. It’s unclear who will attend the event or what it will consist of other than the musical performance. It has been dubbed the "Celebration of America."

Through his statement and his tweets, Trump has painted the event's cancelation as a noble defense of the military and the flag, writing that the Eagles "disagree with the 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." It's a familiar tactic. Trump has repeatedly used players who kneel in protest – whom he has called "sons of bitches" and suggested shouldn't be in the country – to stoke a perverse brand of nationalism among his followers. But as several people have pointed out in the wake of the cancelation, not a single Eagles player knelt during the anthem last year.

The lack of evidence to support Trump’s beef with the Super Bowl champs has put Fox News in an awkward position. They need to push the president's narrative that the Eagles are unpatriotic, but don't have any photos or video of the team's players kneeling during the anthem. The network's solution was to air a montage of images of Eagles players kneeling in prayer, and passing it off like they're protesting. (Later Tuesday morning, the network apologized.)

Eagles tight end Zach Ertz was appalled. "This can’t be serious," he tweeted. "Praying before games with my teammates, well before the anthem, is being used for your propaganda?! Just sad, I feel like you guys should have to be better than this..."

Chris Long, an outspoken defensive end who has been critical of Trump in the past, also responded to the video. "Imagine wanting to please the boss so very badly that you run stills of guys knelt down PRAYING during pregame," he wrote. "Not one Eagles player knelt for the anthem this yr. Keep carrying his water to sow division while misrepresenting Christian men. Aren’t many of your viewers.. nevermind."

"You’re complicit in PLAYING America," Long continued. "This is just another day at the office for you, though. Most players (and there were many players, many players...) that wanted to opt out had decided long b4 the anthem rule came down. It wasn’t discussed once in our meetings about the visit."

On Monday, wide receiver Torrey Smith, who won the Super Bowl with the Eagles but is now a member of the Carolina Panthers, tweeted a similar correction to the White House's rationale.

Trump uninviting the Eagles from the White House is only his latest act of aggression against the NFL and its players, which have been his favorite targets in the ongoing culture war he's done everything he can to exacerbate. The president's criticism of the NFL has been so fierce and so consistent that last month the league gave in and instituted a tone-deaf policy barring players from kneeling in protest during the national anthem. If players don't want to stand on the field, the league will now allow them to remain in the locker room when the anthem is played. Trump has on multiple occasions expressed disappointment that the NFL stopped short of forcing all players to stand for the anthem. "NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!" he tweeted on Tuesday.

In reality, there is nothing the NFL can do to appease Trump, who has harbored a grudge against the league since it stonewalled his effort to buy the Buffalo Bills in 2014. Now that he's president, Trump has a new tool chest with which to needle the NFL. The Washington Post noted Monday that the president even sought to use the Republican tax plan passed last December as a means to punish the league, and ideas about how the legislation could potentially do so reportedly "trickled over to Capitol Hill."

The NFL has yet to comment on Trump's decision to cancel the Eagles' visit, but the NFL Players' Association released a statement Tuesday morning, noting that several player-led community service events that were scheduled as part of the team's trip to Washington had to be canceled. "NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place," the statement concluded. Unfortunately for America, the president feels it's in his best interest for the nation's citizens to believe otherwise.

This post has been updated.