For months, President Trump has railed against the NFL, arguing that players who kneel during the national anthem to protest racial injustice and inequality are being unpatriotic and “disrespectful.”
He continued this attack Monday evening, announcing that the Philadelphia Eagles, the 2018 Super Bowl champions, had been disinvited from the White House. In a statement on Monday, the White House justified the decision by arguing that the team’s members “disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem.” On Tuesday, the White House added that because only a few players agreed to attend, “the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.”
Trump further explained his reasoning on Twitter:
The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
That players had backed out of the event was no surprise; several players including team safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long had already said that they would not attend, pointing to Trump’s handling of racial issues like the white supremacist-led Charlottesville protests as justification for their decision.
But in recent days, the number of players backing out increased rapidly; according to the New York Times, fewer than 10 players planned to attend out of the more than 80 team members invited earlier this year.
To make things more confusing, as Vox’s Jane’s Coaston notes, although Trump pointed to the Eagles players’ involvement in the kneeling protest and supposed lack of patriotism as justification for his decision, players quickly noted that they did not kneel during the anthem at any point during last season.
Still, Trump’s announcement, and his moves to frame the issue as being about the national anthem and respect for the flag, fit a formula that Trump has repeatedly used over the past year. The president has proved remarkably adept at taking racial issues and turning them into full-blown culture wars.
With this latest Eagles brouhaha, the NFL is learning firsthand that any hopes of placating Trump are unlikely to succeed.
Trump got what he wanted, but he’s still calling for more
When then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem at several preseason games in 2016, he said he was protesting police violence and America’s mistreatment of people of color. Trump responded by telling him to “find a country that works better for him.”
Trump drew even more attention to the protests last September when he called on NFL owners to fire protesting players and argued that kneeling protesters did not respect America or the flag.
In the months that followed, the president spoke repeatedly about the protests and shared his thoughts on Twitter, arguing that the protests were unpatriotic. As he did, the public conversation about the protests shifted from discussions of race and racism to the perceived patriotism or lack thereof of the players.
Over time, it became clear that NFL owners, even as fewer players took up kneeling, wanted the issue to go away. “You fellas need to ask your compadres, fellas, stop that other business, let’s go out and do something that really produces positive results, and we’ll help you,” Houston Texans owner Bob McNair said during an October 2017 meeting between NFL players and owners.
Eventually the owners succumbed to the pressure, moving to eliminate the issue entirely by announcing a new policy that requires all players on the field to stand during the anthem; those who do not wish to do so can remain in the locker room instead.
That also created problems. The NFL faced swift backlash from players angered that the league would attempt to control their actions, and the NFL Players Association said that it would review the rule. Trump, who initially praised the new policy, later argued that the league had not gone far enough because it allowed players to remain in the locker room.
More broadly, all of this just demonstrates that Trump admires the fight much more than the actual result.
A recent report from the Wall Street Journal noted that when Trump spoke with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones last year, he argued that he was “winning” by publicly railing against the NFL protests.
“This is a very winning, strong issue for me,” Trump said. “Tell everybody, you can’t win this one. This one lifts me.”
The new rules about the protests haven’t caused Trump to stop his attacks. Instead, he’s simply charged ahead, using his victory to push further. The NFL gave Trump exactly what he wanted — but it seems clear that he’s still not satisfied.