The Eagles' (Super) Political Opportunity
Last Sunday night, President Trump tweeted a message that should have offended no one, excepting, perhaps, the New England Patriots: “Congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles on a great Super Bowl victory!”
The president was appropriate despite potentially being disappointed that his buddies Robert Kraft, Bill Belichick, and Tom Brady didn’t win the big one. Assuming his support for the Pats doesn’t stand in the way of tradition, there’s now another Trump-centric controversy on the horizon. Will he invite the Super Bowl Champions to the White House, and if so, will the team - and its owner - show up?
Three Eagles players have already said they won’t attend such a celebration. Star safety Malcolm Jenkins, who was one of the leaders of the NFL Players Coalition that sought to work with the league’s owners on issues of racial oppression, has said he will not be attending. He wants to “create positive change” for “communities of color” and clearly, to him, President Trump isn’t helping that effort. Starting wide receiver Torrey Smith raised a fist during the national anthem this year to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick (whom Trump insulted publicly) and Black Lives Matter and refuses to visit Trump’s White House because of what he claims is Trump’s divisive rhetoric. And Chris Long, the NFL Man of the Year finalist who donated every paycheck this year to charity, responded, “Are you kidding me?” when asked if he would attend the White House’s celebration this year after skipping last year when he was a New England Patriot.
And it’s not just the Eagle players. Unlike most NFL owners, Jeffrey Lurie is quite liberal. Lurie joined his players on the field in September after Trump’s comments about Kaepernick. He didn’t send money for Trump’s inauguration (unlike several owners). His and his ex-wife Christina’s donation record reads like a list of Democrat all stars: a couple thousand to Hillary, a couple for Kamala Harris, and some financial support for Barack Obama in 2012 (but they did give to Bush-Cheney in 2003).
His players seem to know where Lurie stands. Torrey Smith said about Lurie, “He allows us to have the freedom to speak our minds. Ultimately, I think it’s because he knows we’re speaking for what’s right.” Chris Long concurs: “He shares a lot of the same sentiments players do.” Also of note is that Lurie made his money in Hollywood, the liberal bastion of America. With a doctorate in social policy, too, it’s not hard to see how Lurie represents and likely believes everything that Donald Trump rails against.
To be clear, if the Eagles players skip out on the event, it won’t be the first time that politics has interrupted such a celebration. Tim Thomas, the goalie for the 2011 NHL Champion Boston Bruins did not attend Obama’s celebration for the team because he “believed[d] the federal government had grown out of control.” Two years later, Matt Birk, the starting center for the Baltimore Ravens, refused to visit the White House because of President Obama’s abortion stance. And when the Chicago Cubs came to the White House during Obama’s final days in office, Jake Arrieta refused to go after tweeting the day after Donald Trump won, “Time for Hollywood to pony up and head for the border #illhelpyoupack #beatit.”
More recently, there was the case of the Golden State Warriors, who won the NBA crown in June of 2017. Notwithstanding that no invitation had been sent from the White House, in September, Steph Curry made clear that he would not attend any celebration, given the president’s divisive rhetoric on racial issues in America. He said that by potentially not going to the White House, the Warriors would show “that we don’t stand for basically what our president has — the things that he’s said and the things that he hasn’t said at the right times — that we won’t stand for it. By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country, what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye toward. It’s not just the act of not going, there are things you have to do in the back end that you have to push that message into motion.”
Trump quickly took to Twitter to make clear no invitation was forthcoming: “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!” Lebron James then jumped in to defend Curry: “U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” Needless to say, there was no event for the Warriors in Washington.
Mark Knoller, CBS White House Correspondent and the keeper of presidential statistics, notes several teams have visited President Trump so far with minimal controversy. The New England Patriots visited last year (albeit without a few players). The NHL Champions Pittsburgh Penguins and a handful of NCAA victors including 2017’s football champs, the Clemson Tigers, also have visited. Just this week, the Astros accepted the president’s invitation.
But the NFL has been a particular point of contention for Trump, perhaps stemming from the days when the now president wished to own an NFL franchise but lost out on the bid. Of course, his very public spat with Kaepernick is the most noteworthy conflict. Trump said to a crowd a day before he fought with Curry, "Wouldn't you love to see one of these NFL owners — when somebody disrespects our flag — to say, 'Get that son of a b*tch off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!” A firestorm followed, as the protests of a handful of NFL players became a point of national debate. In fact, Trump’s words on the protest drove conservative voters’ opinion of the NFL so much that Morning Consult found that there’s now a 50-point difference in how Democrats and Republicans rate the NFL as a brand.
Two days after the Super Bowl, I posed the following question on my web site: Does respect for the office of the Presidency demand that championship players attend White House victory celebrations? I reminded my radio audience that one year ago, at the time of the Trump inaugural, I argued that all members of congress owed it to the institution of the presidency to show up and watch Donald Trump be inaugurated. I said this to the congressmen and women who boycotted the event: “You and every other member of Congress should attend an inauguration. It doesn't obligate you to support the Trump agenda, but it does show public support for the office of the presidency. Just as it was wrong for Obama to be treated with contempt, it is equally destructive for the same type of venomous feelings to be directed toward Donald Trump.”
I wondered aloud on radio whether sports teams owed a similar respect to the office of the presidency when invited to the White House. No, or absolutely not, was the answer from the more than 3,000 who answered my poll question.
Here was the result:
I’m seemingly in the minority: I’d like to see the Eagles attend if invited. Hear me out. First, I want them to show President Trump that they are more mature than he is. That even when he insults and disrespects, they want to respond by forcing him to engage with them. More importantly, though, I think showing respect for the office could send a powerful message to the people who rail against the NFL and its protesting players. You can’t say someone doesn’t love the country if they attend in spite of serious political differences.
Finally, the Eagles could use the event as a platform. No, not while they’re actually in the Oval Office—that space is sacrosanct in my opinion. Once they walk out that door, though, they can shout to the moon about the need for justice. All the cameras will be on them. There’s no better way to draw attention to their message while proving that they are better than the man who insults them and their work.