Four months after they knocked off the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles found themselves in an unexpected — well, let’s be honest, all-too-expected — clash with another powerful foe: the President of the United States.
The Eagles had been scheduled to visit the White House on Tuesday to honor their championship. But several Eagles had said, both privately and publicly, that they would not attend any White House ceremony because of their political differences with the president. (This is not unique to Trump; other athletes have skipped visits with Presidents Obama, Bush and others because of political differences.)
The President took the Eagles’ stances as a sign of personal disrespect, saying “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.”
Trump theatrically disinvited the team from attending, the same way he’d disinvited Stephen Curry and the Golden State Warriors several months before. Instead, Trump said, the White House would host a “different type of ceremony—one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem.”
The president then followed that up with a Tuesday morning barrage of tweets that began with an unmistakable shot at the NFL’s new anthem policy:
We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
From there, the president praised the championship teams that have visited him, while intermittently offering his latest perspective on North Korea, Democrats, the Russian investigation and the border wall.
What does this all mean? For the NFL, absolutely nothing good at all.
Wasn’t all this originally about honoring the Eagles for their Super Bowl win?
It was! The champion ceremony is one of the easiest layups a president can make: the winning team puts on suits and gathers in the Rose Garden, the coach presents the president with a jersey with his name on the back, the president makes a few lighthearted jokes about the team’s big moments and star players, and everybody goes away happy.
The team gets a well-deserved honor, the president gets humanized by looking like a regular sports-loving fellow, and everyone takes a tiny break from the rigors of everyday politics. On a policy level, it holds the same weight as pardoning turkeys on Thanksgiving, but from an optics perspective, it’s a two-inch putt for an easy win. Or at least, it should be.
Of course, there could have been other reasons for the president to cancel the visit, such as a surprisingly small showing from the entire team:
Five or fewer Eagles players had intended to attend the White House Super Bowl ceremony, a league source tells me.
— Don Van Natta Jr. (@DVNJr) June 5, 2018
Why does the president continue to tweet about the NFL?
Commentary: Without speculating too much about the specific beef the president may have with the NFL — he’s been rebuffed at least twice in his attempt to join the league, once via a failed merger with the USFL and once by attempting to buy the Buffalo Bills — Trump knows that the respect-the-flag issue plays well with a portion of his base, regardless of the fact that the original protests had nothing to do with patriotism or military disrespect at all.
The NFL attempted to come up with a compromise solution, allowing players who wished to protest the anthem to remain in locker rooms. But with this tweet, Trump wants to position the locker room angle, just as he positioned the entire protest, as a patriotic litmus test: anything other than total obedience is unpatriotic.
You can fact-check and gut-check this issue from every angle and find the gaping holes in the argument — the right to speak one’s mind, no matter how uncomfortable or offensive the words, is bedrock American freedom, and forced patriotism isn’t patriotism at all. But Trump sidesteps those inconvenient truths and appeals to a simple, stark love-it-or-leave-it ethos, and that goes over well enough, with enough of his base, to convince him to keep at it, again and again.
Plus, the NFL’s proven to be a surprisingly weak and conciliatory opponent. Trump will continue to run up the score because the NFL has been unable to mount an effective defense.
What should the NFL have done regarding the anthem and protests?
Commentary: Stand by its own players, for one thing, rather than try to appease a president who values conflict over all. By making its players the enemy, the NFL played right into Trump’s hands, and he quickly viewed their attempt at deference as weakness.
The NFL could and should have taken an NBA approach, requiring standing for the anthem but also allowing players to express themselves personally via such outlets as sneaker messages, hoodies and public statements. But that would run counter to decades of the NFL putting the players before the shield, and no player — not Jim Brown, not Jerry Rice, not Tom Brady — takes precedence over the shield. That approach built the NFL into a financial and ratings behemoth, but it also left the league wide open to criticism from both individually minded players and politically minded presidents.
Why keep reporting on these tweets?
Commentary: When Trump was a reality-TV star, he could tweet about everything from society gossip to the then-current president’s heritage and nobody took him too seriously. But as president, Trump’s tweets have the ability to shape markets, affect lives and literally alter history. Regardless of how petty or insignificant the tweet might seem, when it comes from the president, it’s news.
What’s next in this debate?
Commentary: The president has an easy win here, and he knows it. Any time clouds gather over the White House, the president can cut through the darkness with a fiery anti-NFL tweet and rally the faithful. And for that reason alone, the NFL’s anthem problem will continue for as long as the president remains in office.
So what’s the NFL’s next step? The Eagles might have come up with one route that the NFL could take to handle this: the high road. In the wake of Monday’s disinvitation, Philadelphia released a unifying, positive, thankful statement that didn’t even touch on the president’s tweet:
It’s possible to have a bit of sympathy for the NFL, however self-inflicted its injuries. A sports league dealing with a persistent assault from the White House is both unprecedented and an impossible challenge. But could the high road be the route to take? Simply go on with business as usual, acknowledging but not engaging the president and the volume of his supporters, counting the current money from TV contracts and the future coin from sports gambling? Hey, nothing else has worked.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.
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