Thursday 20 September 2018

Trump ditches Philadelphia Eagles event to scupper players’ no-show

The Super Bowl champions were disinvited to a traditional White House reception after it became clear many players would not show up.

President Donald Trump sings the National Anthem (AP)
President Donald Trump sings the National Anthem (AP)

By Jill Colvin and Jonathan Lemire

US president Donald Trump has ditched a White House celebration for Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles in favour of his own “Celebration of America” after it became clear most of the players were not going to show up.

The NFL team’s owner, Jeffrey Lurie, is a long-standing critic of the president, and several Eagles players have also spoken out against the American football league’s new policy which requires players to stand for the national anthem before matches – or stay in the locker room.

Mr Trump tried to turn the row into a referendum on patriotism and tie it to the long-running dispute over players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest against racism and police brutality.

However, Eagles players never knelt during the Star-Spangled Banner throughout the 2017 season and their march to the Super Bowl title.

The White House accused Eagles team members of pulling a “political stunt” and abandoning their fans by backing out at the last minute. A few had apparently been planning to attend the reception.

Some expressed disappointment that they had been disinvited and complained Mr Trump was unfairly painting them as anti-American.

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Mr Trump held a ‘Celebration of America’ instead of a reception for the Super Bowl champions (AP)

Through it all, Mr Trump appeared to revel in fanning the flames of a culture war which he believes revs up his political base.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the team notified the White House last Thursday that 81 people, including players, coaches, managers and others would be attending the Super Bowl celebration.

But she said the team got back in touch late on Friday and tried to reschedule, “citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance”. The Eagles had proposed an alternative time when Mr Trump would be overseas.

Eagles officials declined to comment on the White House version of events, sticking with a simple earlier statement: “We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season.”

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Mr Trump has expressed his opinions on NFL players ‘taking the knee’ in strong terms (AP)

No-one connected with the team said the players’ reluctance to attend had anything to do with the national anthem, as Mr Trump tried to portray the situation. Comments by star players in the current NBA basketball finals have indicated that it is not about football.

NBA star LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers, who are currently vying for the title against the Golden State Warriors, said: “I know no matter who wins this series, no-one wants the invite anyway. So it won’t be Golden State or Cleveland going.”

There was no disagreement from fellow basketball star Stephen Curry, who angered Mr Trump last year when he said he would not go to the White House after the Warriors’ NBA triumph, leading the president to disinvite him and his team.

Mr Trump, furious about the low number of Eagles players who were coming, scrapped Tuesday’s visit, believing a low turnout would reflect poorly upon him.

He had told aides last year he was embarrassed when Tom Brady, star quarterback of that season’s NFL champion New England Patriots, opted to skip a White House visit.

Instead, the president held what he dubbed a “patriotic celebration” that was short and spare. A military band and chorus delivered the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America, with brief remarks from Mr Trump sandwiched in between.

“We love our country, we respect our flag and we always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Mr Trump said.

The White House crowd of roughly 1,000, mostly dressed in business suits, was light on Pennsylvanians and heavy on administration and Republican Party officials. Several in attendance blamed the players, not the president, for torpedoing the Eagles event.

Mr Trump’s own patriotic event was not without controversy. Following the playing of the anthem, a heckler shouted from the audience: “Stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem,” prompting boos.

A Swedish reporter posted video of a man kneeling as the anthem was played.

Press Association

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