For President Donald Trump, professional athletes are the gift that keeps on giving.
You might recall how Trump withdrew the customary White House invitation from last year’s NBA champion, the Golden State Warriors, because star Stephen Curry has the temerity to question whether he actually wanted to go. On Monday, Trump did it again, abruptly canceling a planned celebration at the White House on Tuesday with the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles because a number of team members refused to join in. Their beef? Trump’s strong-arming the National Football League owners into requiring players on the field to stand respectfully during the anthem and not do anything, you know, uppity.
Those protests, by the way, are meant to call attention to the repeated incidents of police shooting unarmed black men. But that’s not the angle Trump takes. Here’s how he characterized the Eagles’ views in a statement Monday:
“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.”
You may insert your favorite quote about forced displays of patriotism here. But the bigger lesson here is that these White House dog-and-pony shows with championship teams are now utterly politicized, on top of being far too numerous (an example of Championship Celebration Creep: the White House ceremony last month for NASCAR’s top driver). Players need to recognize that they’re getting played by someone who’s better at this than they are.
Trump sees the anthem issue (which also fed Curry’s misgivings) like a slow curve into his wheelhouse, something that resonates strongly with his base. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Trump told as much to Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
Trump played up the us-against-them aspects in his statement regarding the Super Bowl champs. “The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation, but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better,” he said. “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.”
That, ladies and gentlemen, is major league spin. The president stands with the fans and the military, while the Eagles find themselves in the role of disrespectful, unpatriotic athletes.
Championship teams are in tough spot. It’s a huge honor to be invited to the White House, and these sorts of celebrations used to be puff pastry — light and airy. At the same time, it’s a cherished American right to protest the way the government uses its enormous power — and to criticize anyone and everyone in office, including the president. And this particularly thin-skinned president lashes back.
So, should the Eagles have shut up and marched en masse to the South Lawn, where at the very least they could have enjoyed rubbing in their victory over a team owned, coached and quarterbacked by well-known Trump supporters? That seems like too big a trade-off. It would be better if players told their leagues to inform the White House that no matter who their champion is, they won’t be visiting the White House. It’s infinitely preferable to being played by the guy who lives there.