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This Secret Society in Washington, D.C., Has One Agenda: Fly, Eagles, Fly

The most passionate fan base in D.C. political media belongs to the NFL’s league-leading team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last Sunday, while Washington, D.C., was wondering about the composition of the Senate or watching the Commanders, a dozen emails flew back and forth. These messages were part of a long and unwieldy email thread. The recipients were pillars of the D.C. media. They included three cable news hosts, a network White House correspondent, and print journalists from a range of outlets, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Intercept. A sitting U.S. representative and a Midwest governor’s chief of staff got the emails as well.

This “secret society of sorts,” as CNN’s Jake Tapper calls it, was worrying about its favorite football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. Never mind that Jalen Hurts and Co. were in the process of hanging 35 points on the Tennessee Titans. When Washington reporters email about the Eagles, they exude the same sense of fatalism you find in the upper deck of the Linc or in the headquarters of the Democratic Party.

“We’re so sure we’re going to be disappointed because that’s how it always goes,” says New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel, a native of the Philadelphia area who’s on the email thread. “Then they win, and it’s like, ‘OK, fine, they won.’”

Justin Sink, a Bloomberg News White House correspondent (and the husband of Ringer staffer Claire McNear), says the emailers are “the most despondent group of people experiencing success you can ever put together.”

The Eagles’ place atop the NFL standings offers an opportunity, as they say in Washington, for some candor. If you consume political news, there’s a very good chance the person you’re getting it from is an Eagles fan. Fans who are in the D.C. press corps—and on the email thread—include Tapper and his fellow CNN anchor Kasie Hunt. NBC and MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson. CNBC’s Eamon Javers. ABC News’ Karen Travers. Print types include The New York Times’ Vogel, The Washington Post reporters Paul Kane and Tony Romm, Bloomberg’s Sink, Politico editor Charlie Mahtesian, and The Intercept D.C. bureau chief Ryan Grim. CBS News’ Robert Costa, who also roots for the Eagles, is not on the email thread, which an organizer says is probably an oversight.

Washington media outlets, like the city itself, are crawling with fans of every NFL team. But Eagles fans are particularly noisy. The email thread is the place where they ponder the bad things that could happen after they start the season 11-1. As Anne Caprara, an emailer who is chief of staff to Illinois governor JB Pritzker, says, “You stumbled onto the Illuminati of Philly sports.”

The Eagles email thread was created in 2017 by three superfans. Caprara was fresh off a stint running Hillary Clinton’s super PAC Priorities USA Action. Brendan Boyle was a second-term Democratic representative from Philadelphia. Kane was covering Congress for the Post. They organized a game-watching party at the Hawk ’n’ Dove, a bar frequented by aspirational Capitol Hill aides who wear khaki pants.

Philadelphia beat Washington that night. The NFC East’s answer to JournoList was created to help Eagles fans stay in touch. The list, cobbled together through personal contacts and Eagles fans spotted on Twitter, now has more than 50 members. “Outside of getting JB Pritzker elected governor, this is the thing I’m the most proud of,” says Caprara.

When I ask about the emails, reporters bob and weave like the politicians they cover. “There’s very little I can say about it,” says Tapper. Via email, Boyle—an actual politician—describes himself as a “regular contributor.” The thread was alerted as soon as I started working on this story.

But after some grumbling about vows of silence, a few emailers pointed out fellow members and disclosed a few details about the contents. The email thread is a reply-all affair, rather than a Slack channel, because it includes a number of Gen Xers. “We also send carrier pigeons to each other sometimes,” says NBC’s Jackson.

Most of the talk is about the Eagles. But the thread also includes Eagles-adjacent subjects like the Phillies’ World Series run, the legendary local news anchor Jim Gardner, and the opening of Wawa convenience stores in Washington.

“The only rules,” says Tapper, “are no politics and no one can change the subject line of the email.” The subject line (“Reminder - Re: Hawk ’n’ Dove - Eagles Expat gathering - save the date”) was intact when the team won its first-ever Super Bowl a few months after the thread’s creation. Some emailers consider it a lucky charm.

Emailers agree that the thread is at its best, or at least its funniest, when the Eagles are losing. Or at times like Sunday’s game, when the Eagles got charged with 12 penalties. Moments like these are when members can “talk about the crushed optimism, consistent disappointment, cynicism, and rage that we experience as Philly sports fans,” says Mahtesian.

As you can see at any sports bar, fans who root for the same team often play different roles. Tapper jumps in when emailers are showing too much optimism about the Eagles. Kane says his role is to second “Jake’s ‘my God, why would you say that, you’re going to jinx it’ material.”

Boyle notes that, in September, he stepped in during a moment of Phillies pessimism to remind the group that the team could make some noise in the postseason. This is why Boyle is a representative and not a reporter.

For decades, Eagles fans have been caricatured as WIP-dialing, snowball-throwing, Santa-booing hooligans. The Eagles fans in the Washington, D.C., media are different from that, at least slightly.

Before Tapper went to the 2018 Eagles-Patriots Super Bowl, he tweeted a photo of himself in an Eagles sweater. Tapper wore the same grave TV face he had when delivering the Georgia Senate runoff results on Tuesday night. “I was terrified,” he says. Tapper got Super Bowl tickets as a gift from his old CNN boss Jeff Zucker.

Ken Vogel, who went to the game with his wife, admits he paid “substantially more” for his tickets than their $1,250 face value. Vogel’s ticket, which is signed by Randall Cunningham, is now framed and hanging on a wall in his home office.

Tapper describes the Super Bowl’s final seconds, when Tom Brady’s Hail Mary pass bounced on the turf in the end zone, as “a joy that I’ve only experienced with the birth of my two children.” Caprara, who was also at the game, says: “I cried because there was a group of Patriots fans around me who looked like someone had just shot their dog, and it was the happiest I’ve ever been.”

Eagles fandom has many different manifestations. Vogel, who co-bylined recent investigative stories about sports betting for the Times, is perhaps the only member of the email thread who has a tattoo of the Eagles logo—the old-school logo. “I don’t want anyone to think I’m a bandwagon fan,” he says.

Hallie Jackson named her French bulldog after former Eagles safety Brian Dawkins. Karen Travers puts her 7-year-old son to bed with a stuffed Carson Wentz doll, which remains a beloved toy despite Wentz’s expulsion from Philly. One night, before Travers’s son drifted off to sleep, he told her, “Go Birds.”

In 2005, Travers invited Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb to sit at ABC’s table during the White House Correspondents’ dinner. (The network’s other guest was Brady, who had just beaten McNabb in the Super Bowl.) In 2018, Caprara watched JB Pritzker, whose gubernatorial campaign she was managing, debate his Republican opponent, Bruce Rauner. Backstage, she live-tweeted both the debate and the Eagles-Giants game, which she watched on her computer.

Last month, Tony Romm, who covers Congress and the economy for the Post, tweeted that the paper’s copyediting tool dealt him the ultimate insult. It suggested changing his byline to “Tony Romo.”

Why so many Eagles fans have infiltrated the highest rungs of political media is probably a matter of simple geographic destiny. Eagles fandom can also be read as a symptom of homesickness. “Distance from Wawa makes the heart grow fonder for it,” says Grim.

The election of a Delawarean like Joe Biden has only encouraged Philly sports fans. In November, Travers volunteered to be part of the White House pool when Jill Biden attended Game 4 of the World Series in Philadelphia. (The Phillies wound up getting no-hit by the Astros.)

Even Donald Trump had a way of dragging the Eagles into the national conversation. Bloomberg News’ Justin Sink says that Kellyanne Conway, who is from South Jersey, used to talk Eagles with him on the tarmac next to Air Force One.

When Trump invited the 2018 Super Bowl champs to the White House, and then disinvited them, Tapper delivered a blistering fact-check on CNN. (“He had conflated the Steelers and the Eagles, which is grounds for impeachment right there, frankly,” he says.) Later that year, Tapper revealed that someone from the Saudi embassy had reached out to offer him tickets to the Super Bowl. Tapper said no, for obvious reasons. But in its brazen way, the offer was an acknowledgment of just how public Tapper’s Eagles had become.

From a certain angle, the Eagles fan and the D.C. political reporter are similar beings. Trump’s election made the Washington reporter a uniquely radioactive figure in American life. Eagles fans were always like that.

There’s also an aesthetic tie. The air of cynicism cultivated by Philadelphia sports fans matches the one cultivated by political reporters.

“The kind of people who call into WIP,” Robert Costa says of the legendary Philly sports radio station, “are the kind of people who would be more than happy to shout a question at the president of the United States.” Until his mid-20s, Costa, who cowrote a Trump book with Bob Woodward, called into WIP as “Bob from Yardley.”

If Eagles media fans seem particularly noisy, it’s because of the world they work in. These days, it’s the lot of the political reporter to have every tweet, every cable news utterance, and every piece of display copy scrutinized by critics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But in that environment, Eagles fandom becomes a safe space.

“I’m extremely careful about what I tweet and what I say on TV to avoid saying anything that could be perceived as showing political bias,” says Vogel. “But I don’t feel as restrained with my Philly sports tweets. I feel like that’s a bias that’s OK for me to express.”

D.C. media types are as reluctant to talk about where this Eagles season might go as they are to discuss the email thread. Tapper worries that even our conversation could be a jinx. When I ask Hallie Jackson whether she’ll go to the Super Bowl, she declines to commit herself with the verve of a politician. “As they say in Washington,” Jackson says, “let me circle back with you.”