Political football: Trump throws his own party after disinviting NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles
‘We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem’
US President Donald Trump threw his own flag-waving – if subdued – “celebration of America” Tuesday after cancelling a reception for the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles because only “a tiny handful” of players planned to attend.
“We love our country. We respect our flag. We always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump said at a hastily organised nationalistic jamboree on the South Lawn of the White House.
Trump had planned a high-profile reception for the Super Bowl LII champion team, but cancelled on the eve of their trip, citing NFL players’ kneeling protests during the pregame national anthem.
But it transpired Tuesday that the reception was scrapped because only a few of the 81 team members invited had actually planned to attend.
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
Instead, Trump hosted an event featuring songs, flag waving and a brief four minutes of remarks in which he praised his own management of the economy and the familiar themes of American nationalism.
“We stand together for freedom. We stand together for patriotism. And we proudly stand for our glorious nation under God,” he said.
Flags fluttered and the Marine Band banged out patriotic tunes to the crowd of around hundreds, but the event was for the most part subdued.
A significant portion of the audience was made up of White House staff – who admitted to not being Eagles fans when asked – and Trump faced at least one protester who demanded the divisive president “stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem!”
Trump himself appeared to struggle with the lyrics of God Bless America, which he mouthed, then nodded along to.
The run-up to the event had brought a very public spat between Trump and the champion team, which the White House accused of deciding to “abandon their fans.”
“Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend,” press secretary Sarah Sanders said.
“Upon learning these facts, the president decided to change the event.”
The spat reignited a Trump-fuelled debate over national anthem protests.
Trump set off widespread protests by mostly black NFL athletes last year after labelling players who knelt during the national anthem to protest racial injustice “sons of bitches” who should be fired.
Colin Kaepernick, the then-quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, began the kneeling protests in 2016 to draw attention to police brutality and racial inequality.
Kaepernick’s protest followed a wave of deaths of black men during encounters with law enforcement.
The Eagles’ roster contains several prominent figures from the NFL player protest movement, and some, including safety Malcolm Jenkins and defensive end Chris Long, had already indicated they planned not to attend. However, no Eagles player knelt during the anthem last season.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has also been critical of Trump, and reportedly described his presidency as “disastrous,” according to a New York Times report earlier this year.
The US president has repeatedly tried to inflame political anger and find sensitive “wedge issues” to animate his supporters.
Trump had a similar rift last year with the NBA champion Golden State Warriors – also from a city with a large African American population.
The president withdrew an invitation to the team to attend a White House reception after star Stephen Curry and other players indicated a reluctance to attend.