Last night, President Donald Trump announced that he was rescinding his White House invitation to the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles after only a fraction of the team planned to attend today's 3 p.m. ceremony. "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," he claimed.
In a follow-up tweet, the president gave the false impression that the recalcitrant Eagles were among those National Football League players who have been staging protests during the pre-game playing of the national anthem:
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
In fact, no Eagle stayed in the locker room or kneeled during the anthem throughout the 2017-2018 season, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. (Safety Malcolm Jenkins, an outspoken political activist, raised a fist for part of the season.) That didn't stop Fox News from illustrating the story with pictures of Eagles kneeling—in prayer, not anthem-protest. (The cable network later apologized.)
The president's misleading, self-serving frame—that the players' reluctance to attend was only about the NFL's controversial anthem policy, a conflict he has taken an open delight in exacerbating—was quickly parroted by some of his supporters, including self-styled free speech champion Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA:
If you refuse to stand for the national anthem you have no business being honored at the White House or by our President
— Charlie Kirk (@charliekirk11) June 4, 2018
Last month, when I wrote that, "Saying 'How high?' when a president says 'Jump!' is behavior suitable for a royal subject, not an American citizen," many interpreted my criticism as being pointed at NFL owners (who, they also maintained, were merely reacting rationally to market signals). But I was talking specifically about members of the public whose passion about and interpretation of this remarkably trivial issue seem tethered directly to the president's Twitter feed.
Again, no member of the Philadelphia Eagles refused to stand for the national anthem in 2017–2018, so portraying Trump's decision as a defense of "The Star-Spangled Banner" is like volunteering to sit on a ventriloquist's lap. Though at least Kirk, unlike Trump, didn't suggest that non-compliant players leave the country (speaking of which, where are they supposed to go, given that less than 3 percent of the league was born outside of the United States?).
So was the players' reticence all about the anthem? No. In fact, many Eagles declined the prospective White House invitation long before the recent reanimation of that controversy, and they cited plenty of other reasons. "It's not about politics. It's just about—I don't think the president is a good person," wide receiver Torrey Smith said in February. "I don't want to go out of my way to go see someone who isn't even welcoming the men in this locker room and our different cultures."
Jenkins pinned his disinterest on the lack of opportunity to talk policy. "Because it is not a meeting or a sit-down or anything like that, I'm just not interested in the photo op," he told the Inquirer. "Over the last two years, I have been meeting with legislators, both Republican and Democrat, don't matter. If you want to meet to talk about advancing our communities, changing our country, I am all for that. But this isn't one of those meetings."
Defensive lineman Chris Long and running back LeGarrette Blount both skipped last year's White House ceremony as members of the New England Patriots as well, and were planning to do so again this year. "[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?'" Long said in 2017. Echoed Blount then: "I will not be going to the White House. I don't feel welcome in that house. I'll leave it at that."
The anthem-wars no doubt played a role in souring players on Trump—after all, the president of the United States did say last September, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, 'Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he's fired. He's fired!'" That is surely no way to talk about a man's mother. And as Jenkins recently observed, "Quite frankly, guys in our league don't like being told what to do, what they can and can't do." After Trump's inflammatory comments, Jenkins noted, "We went from, like, nine guys [protesting] to over 200."
Which is all to the good as far as the president is concerned. Trump was delighted by the reaction to his comments last September, and followed it up by dispatching Vice President Mike Pence for anthem theatrics and name-checking the controversy during his State of the Union Address. Axios in February, quoting an unnamed source close to the White House, reported that the president's approach toward whipping up Republican enthusiasm before the midterms "will be looking for 'unexpected cultural flashpoints'—like the NFL and kneeling—that he can latch onto in person and on Twitter." Trump looks upon cultural divides and sees how he can make them wider, for personal gain.
In a statement released late this morning, the White House accused the Eagles of backing out of their original plan to have 81 members of the organization attend, and of trying to get the event rescheduled at the last minute. We shall see how those claims hold up. But, as Jonah Goldberg and Ben Shapiro (among others) have noted, the notion that the refuseniks are stubborn anthem-protesters is just false. "The attempt to make the Eagles event cancellation about the national anthem is just a complete act of deceitful propaganda," Goldberg wrote, "and conservatives should have zero to do with it."