For a long time, it seemed that the great American sport of football was one of the few topics of conversation that bridged the political divide. “Liberal” and “conservative” labels were irrelevant to discussions of first-downs and flea-flickers. As long as you didn’t like the Cowboys or Patriots, we could have a civilized dialogue.
As discourse surrounding the NFL national anthem issue grows more heated, that possibility seems to have ebbed. Since Colin Kaepernick first “took a knee” in 2016, the debate has grown more complicated as many prominent actors with a stake in its outcome, including the league, its players, its owners, and President Trump have voiced their grievances. The latest skirmish played out Tuesday when Trump canceled the Philadelphia Eagles’ post-Superbowl visit to the White House after it was reported that fewer than 10 of their players would attend.
(Note: we are Philly sports fans. But we try and keep the home-team bias to a minimum)
The story of the Eagles’ 2017 season is one of the most interesting to have emerged from professional sports in recent years. The team improved on a 7-9 record from the previous season to go 13-3 and secure the #1 playoff seed for the first time since 2005. They defeated last year’s NFC champions and then blew out the Minnesota Vikings in a stunning victory with the help of backup quarterback Nick Foles. Few pundits believed Foles had the ability to succeed in the playoffs after he replaced injured superstar Carson Wentz at the end of the regular season. This all happened under the command of Doug Pederson, a former quarterback and 2nd-year head coach who built a reputation with risky decisions and ambitious playcalling. Pederson and Foles stunned us all with an especially memorable play at the Super Bowl that eventually led Philadelphia to their first championship.
But the more compelling narrative of the Eagles’ season is rooted in their activism. The team’s cast of socially conscious players has earned them the title of the “NFL’s wokest team.” The lineup includes: Malcolm Jenkins, who started his own charity, wrote an op-ed on fixing the criminal justice system, met with Congressional legislators, and rode along on a Philadelphia police call; Chris Long, who donated all of his game checks to education initiatives in Charlottesville; and Carson Wentz, who has raised over $860,000 for his AO1 foundation. Rodney McLeod and Torrey Smith have also been involved in organizing joint police-activist meetings, and Lane Johnson worked with Chris Long to pressure the NFL to donate merchandise sales from the famous “dog mask” t-shirts to Philadelphia schools. (They are also, by the way, one of the most devout teams in the NFL).
Yet none of the players ever knelt during the ‘17 season, which is why the clash between the Eagles and the Trump administration is all the more puzzling. Some Eagles players did make statements on the field, but you can hardly call raising a fist disrespecting the national anthem (we don’t believe that kneeling is either, but that’s another discussion). Malcolm Jenkins was clear: “my whole motivation was to draw awareness to disenfranchised people, communities of color, injustices around the country,” and “our criminal justice system.”
Jenkins actually cut a deal with the NFL in November to stop protesting on the field in exchange for the league donating $100 million to a variety of social causes. Not only does his example dismantle the argument that the anthem protests have not produced tangible outcomes, but it also raises the question as to why Jenkins is not being lauded by right-wing pundits who complain that the players protest too much and never take action.
Another criticism that socially active athletes often face is that politics is a distraction from their jobs and that it threatens team cohesion. But that was unarguably not the case for the Eagles this past season. Anyone who has watched the Eagles coordinate team celebrations after a touchdown knows this to be false. But more importantly, the Eagles were able to cope with the loss of key players this season, including All-Pro Left Tackle Jason Peters and the favored MVP Carson Wentz, and defeat New England’s Evil Empire with a backup quarterback- all while continuing their social activism in the weeks leading up to the Superbowl. If any football or political pundit wants to claim that social activism hurts teams’ in-game performances, the Eagles don’t fit the bill.
So then why did Trump abruptly cancel the Eagles’ White House visit? Why did Fox News run misleading photos depicting Eagles players kneeling when they were in fact praying?
Think about the other options for Trump. He could have limited his criticism of the players to the demonstrations themselves, brushed off the tension with a couple of jokes standing next to those who planned on showing up, or just left the entire situation alone altogether. Instead, he went as far as to accuse the organization of pulling a “political stunt” and claimed that the players “abandoned their fans” (yet felt compelled to inflate the crowd size at his phony event with his own staffers). There might not be a worse team in the NFL to criticize on the merit of their social activism, and the President should probably avoid picking a fight with a team that just delivered a Super Bowl deprived city their first championship in team history.
For Fox, it’s easy to imagine someone in the network room requesting a picture of Eagles players kneeling without bothering to check reports of whether any player had actually done so during the season. All Fox would have needed to do to verify the photos is to conduct a few reverse image searches on Google. Instead, they settled to televise the pictures of players kneeling, act like they made an honest error upon realizing they were in fact praying, and issue an apology after players and pundits ripped them on social media.
But make no mistake: Fox’s offense didn’t originate from simple oversight. It is an error rooted in the network’s unwillingness to broadcast facts that contradict their narrative.
The President and his pundits would rather spend energy convincing their base that America and its flag are under attack from entitled athletes than be embarrassed being stood up by the Superbowl Champions. It’s hard to tell who wins in this situation, because while Trump and Fox were proved wrong about Philadelphia, their audiences’ perceptions may well have been formed before the truth came out. But let’s also be clear: Philly doesn’t care what Trump says about the Eagles.
At the end of the day, none of this political theater is of great consequence to anyone. Most of the Eagles players decided against visiting the White House before Trump had canceled. Fox News and their audience will move on. Trump looked foolish on tape trying to sing “God Bless America”. And this franchise has players who will continue to use the platform they have been given to promote social change. Meanwhile, the cheesesteaks are still sizzling in Philadelphia.
Are we missing anything?
Oh, that’s right: the Eagles won the frick’n Super Bowl.