When President Donald Trump on Monday abruptly disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the White House, he cited the ongoing dispute over players kneeling during the national anthem.
In reality, scores of Eagles players had decided to skip the visit even before the National Football League caved to Trump by announcing its new anthem policy. And, as several outlets and players themselves have pointed out, no Eagles players knelt during the national anthem this past season.
In sum, Trump, with help from some in the media, appears to have used some sleight of hand to obscure a potential embarrassment and shift the focus to the anthem, a powerful culture war issue for his base of supporters.
In a statement released Monday afternoon, Trump said he was disinviting the Eagles because “[t]hey 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.”
“The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better,” Trump’s statement continued. “These fans are still invited to the White House to be part of a different type of ceremony—one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem. I will be there at 3:00 p.m. with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus to celebrate America.”
We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
We have had many Championship teams recently at the White House including the Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, Pittsburgh Penguins, New England Patriots, Alabama and Clemson National Champions, and many others. National Anthem & more great music today at 3:00 P.M.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
Fox News bolstered Trump’s line, using pictures of Eagles kneeling in prayer to falsely suggest that Eagles players had knelt in protest of police brutality. “The President announcing the Philadelphia Eagles will not be visiting the White House tomorrow to celebrate their Super Bowl victory due to the national anthem controversy,” anchor Shannon Bream said Monday night. The network later called the use of the pictures an error, and apologized.
Even CNN went along with Trump’s framing, declaring in a chyron Tuesday that Trump had cited the “anthem dispute” in disinviting the Eagles. No such dispute appears to have existed with the Eagles.
The White House’s comments have been confusing at times. An unnamed senior White House official told the New York Times, in the paper’s words, that initially “more than 80 members of the Eagles team requested security clearance to attend Tuesday’s event. But after the N.F.L.’s decision last month on kneeling at games, the number who said they planned to attend dwindled rapidly.”
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement Tuesday that 81 players, coaches, management and support personnel from Eagles said as recently as last Thursday — a full week after the NFL’s decision — that they’d attend Tuesday’s event.
And not only did no players kneel for the anthem this season, several players publicly announced their objections to Trump personally — well before the new anthem policy was announced.
“Most players (and there were many players, many players…) that wanted to opt out had decided long b4 the anthem rule came down,” Eagle Chris Long said on Twitter Tuesday, contradicting the Times’ source.
“No one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem,” former Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith, who has since moved to the Carolina Panthers, tweeted Monday in response to Trump’s statement. Smith said in January that he’d skip the White House if the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
Malcolm Jenkins, a safety for the Eagles, said in February that he would not go. “I’m just not interested in the photo op,” Jenkins said.
Long said in January that, as he did the year previous as a player on the champion New England Patriots, he would skip a White House visit if the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
“No, I’m not going to the White House,” he told the “Pardon My Take” podcast. “Are you kidding me?”
As with other Eagles, Long cited Trump himself, not the anthem, as his reasoning behind skipping the event.
“(When) my son grows up — and I believe the legacy of our President is going to be what it is — I don’t want him to say, ‘Hey Dad, why’d you go when you knew the right thing was to not go?'” he said.
Eagles Brandon Graham and Dannell Ellerbe also said prior to the NFL’s new anthem rule that they wouldn’t attend the event. None cited Trump’s distaste for kneeling during the anthem as a reason for their decision.
“I don’t feel welcome in that house,” LeGarrette Blount told Rich Eisen in February 2017, explaining why he wouldn’t accompany the Patriots for their White House visit. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie, though reportedly planning to attend the White House event, said during a meeting of players and owners in October: “Many of us [owners] have no interest in supporting President Trump,” according to the New York Times.
“Yes, there are some,” he said. “There are some players who do, too.
An unnamed source told ESPN that five or fewer players planned on attending the event. ESPN’s Adam Schefter wrote on Twitter: “A large group of Eagles players had decided not to attend White House, including most — if not all — of the black players, a source told ESPN.”
This story has been updated.