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The White House Didn’t Cancel the Eagles’ Visit Because of the National Anthem

The Trump administration will always use the NFL’s inequality protests to gain easy political currency

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Here we go again.

The Philadelphia Eagles were scheduled to visit the White House on Tuesday afternoon for the customary victory lap granted each year’s Super Bowl victor. It would have all the light-hearted pomp and circumstance that champion visits to the executive mansion always have: a stiff photo op on the South Lawn, some cordial pun-slinging by the commander in chief, the brandishing of a team jersey customized with the president’s name. Tuesday’s visit was going to be by a depleted group, even by the “Won’t be able to make it” standards of the past 15 months, with many members of the outspokenly political team—among them Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long—making clear they had no intention of sharing a celebratory stage with Donald Trump. “[When] my son grows up, and I believe the legacy of our president is going to be what it is,” Long said in 2017, “I don’t want him to say, ‘Hey Dad, why’d you go [to the White House] when you knew the right thing was to not go?’”

But even those members of Philadelphia’s team and staff who were going to attend the ceremony won’t get the chance. The White House issued a statement Monday evening effectively disinviting the Super Bowl champs, saying that the fans planning to attend the event “deserve better.” This, apparently, is because some members of the Eagles have participated in the NFL’s inequality protests over the past two seasons; the statement also said that the president “insists that [players] proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart.” (It’s unclear if this means that the White House intended to require the visiting Eagles delegation to stand for a performance of the anthem; wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted in response that “no one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem.”) Visiting fans, the White House statement read, would instead be welcomed to “a different type of ceremony,” which would feature a performance of the anthem.

There are two ways to read the White House statement, with the truth probably being a mix of both. First: The Eagles’ turnout was going to be so poor—the White House statement called it “a smaller delegation,” and Smith (who said in February that he would not join the visit) wrote that “not many people were going to go,” with an ESPN report suggesting that most or all of the team’s black players had opted out—that the White House worried it risked embarrassment. And second: Trump saw an easy way to turn the event into political currency.

The NFL’s fears of further agitation by Trump, whose criticism of the protests last fall sharply politicized the discussion of the movement, were reportedly the rationale behind last month’s revised national anthem policy. Under the new policy, players may remain in the locker room for the duration of the pregame anthem performance, but any player who kneels on the field during the anthem will have his team fined. Whatever the patriotic inclinations or political leanings of the league’s 32 team owners (who jointly enacted the revised rule, despite some reported abstentions), the new policy was intended above all to sweep the protests under the rug. In a word, the NFL’s Jim Trotter reported of the rule, the motivation was “fear. In two words: Donald Trump.”

We know now that the move was every bit the folly that it seemed. Trump will never let the NFL inequality protests rest. In Trump’s view, the debate over NFL protests isn’t about inequality or racial injustice, as the protesters themselves have said time and time again. The debate also isn’t, however, about the sanctity of the national anthem. For the president, it’s precisely what it’s always been: yet another thing that is just about Trump.