- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The White House accused the disinvited-Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles of “abandoning” their fans at a patriotic event hosted by President Trump Tuesday, as the clash of traditions honoring sports champions and showing respect for the flag took a bitter political turn.

Mr. Trump emceed a musical “Celebration of America” on the South Lawn after withdrawing his invitation to the Eagles, as the White House said it rejected the team’s offer to send only a “tiny” contingent of players and coaches to meet the president. The White House said the NFL team tried to engage in a “political stunt” to embarrass the president.

With the Marine Band behind him, Mr. Trump said he wanted to explain to the crowd of several hundred, including a few wearing Eagles hats and jerseys, “why young Americans stand for our national anthem.”

“Maybe it’s about time we understood,” Mr. Trump said. “We love our country, we respect our flag, and we always proudly stand for the national anthem.”

An unidentified heckler near the front of the crowd shouted at the president as he began his remarks, accusing Mr. Trump of “hiding” behind the military.

Others in the crowd booed him, calling him a “Cowboys fan.” One bearded man in a white dress shirt and khakis knelt on the lawn during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

The president didn’t mention the Eagles but said the event was “even bigger than we had anticipated” as the crowd cheered heartily and waved small American flags.

“We stand to honor our military, and to honor our country and to remember the fallen heroes who never made it back home,” Mr. Trump said. “We proudly stand for our glorious nation under God.”

The brief ceremony concluded with the audience singing “God Bless America.”
Among those in the crowd were Eagles‘ fans Jim Cawley of Newtown, Pennsylvania, and his 15-year-old nephew, Colin McDonald. Mr. Cawley said he was disappointed that the team wasn’t present, but added “nothing’s going to take away from the fact that the Eagles are world champions.”

“Obviously I, like everyone else, had hoped that the Eagles and the White House could come to an agreement,” Mr. Cawley said. “But such was not the case. The president of the United States asked my nephew and I to come on down and listen to some patriotic music, so we’re here.”

Hosting sports champions at the White House is a tradition; Mr. Trump has hosted several teams such as the World Series champ Houston Astros and NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins without incident. But he also disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors earlier this year when it became apparent that many of the players didn’t want to be seen in the same room with Mr. Trump.

The White House said Tuesday that Mr. Trump bent over backwards to accommodate the Eagles for a celebration, but the team “decided to abandon their fans” by skipping the event while also planning to visit other sites in Washington.

Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House held “extensive discussions” with the team to work out a date “despite sensing a lack of good faith” from the Eagles.

“Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend the event, despite planning to be in D.C. today,” she said. “In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.”

She said the Eagles‘ organization tried to pull a “political stunt” by sending a smaller group.

“If this wasn’t a political stunt by the Eagles‘ franchise, then they wouldn’t have planned to attend the event and then backed out at the last minute,” she said. “The Eagles are the ones that changed their commitment at the last minute.”

Mr. Trump canceled the celebration scheduled for Tuesday, saying Eagles‘ fans “deserve better” than for 10 or so players and coaches to show up for the event.

The feud with the Eagles had been brewing since even before the Super Bowl, when some of the players said they wouldn’t go to the White House if they won the championship, objecting to Mr. Trump’s calls for the NFL to stop player protests against police brutality and racial injustice during the national anthem.

The NFL announced earlier this month that it would implement a new policy next season requiring players to stand on the sideline during the national anthem, or remain in the locker room while it’s being played.

The president also criticized that policy Tuesday, tweeting, “NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!”

The Eagles are one of only seven NFL teams that had no players kneel in protest during the season. Fox News apologized for a report this week that showed images of Eagles players kneeling in prayer before games, which seemed to imply they had been protesting.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney accused Mr. Trump of being unpatriotic for withdrawing his invitation for the Eagles.

“Disinviting them from the White House only proves that our president is not a true patriot, but a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party to which no one wants to attend,” said Mr. Kenney, a Democrat.

The NFL players’ union said some players canceled community-service events in the Washington area in response to Mr. Trump’s decision.

“Our union is disappointed in the decision by the White House to disinvite players from the Philadelphia Eagles from being recognized and celebrated by all Americans for their accomplishment,” the NFL players’ association said in a statement. “This decision by the White House has led to the cancellation of several player-led community service events for young people in the Washington, D.C. area.”

The statement concluded, “NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place.”

The White House put out a timeline of sorts about the discussions with the team, beginning after the EaglesSuper Bowl win in February. Mrs. Sanders said the team at first accepted an invitation to visit the White House on Tuesday.

Last Thursday, she said, the team notified the White House that 81 people, including players, coaches, management, and support personnel, would attend the event. On Friday, the Secret Service cleared them for participation.

“These individuals, along with more than 1,000 Eagles fans, were scheduled to attend the event,” she said.

But late Friday, “citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance, the team contacted the White House again, and attempted to reschedule the event,” she said. That conflicted with the travel plans of Mr. Trump, who is departing this Friday for a G-7 summit in Canada and then on to Singapore for denuclearization talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

“The president … had already announced that he would be traveling overseas on the dates the Eagles proposed,” Mrs. Sanders said. “The White House, despite sensing a lack of good faith, nonetheless attempted to work with the Eagles over the weekend to change the event format that could accommodate a smaller group of players.”

In the end, Mr. Trump “decided to change the event so that it would be a celebration of the American flag with Eagles fans and performances by United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus,” Mrs. Sanders said.
By taking a stand against the Eagles, Mr. Trump might also be crossing Eagles‘ voters in a key swing state.

The president carried Pennsylvania by less than 45,000 votes in 2016. That’s about two-thirds of the capacity of Lincoln Financial Field, home of the Eagles.

“There’s likely to be a political downside for the president,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. “I do think on balance it probably hurts the president more than it hurts the Eagles, given the huge amount of support base that they have.”

Pennsylvania tends to vote Democratic in presidential elections. Until Mr. Trump’s stunning victory there against Hillary Clinton two years ago, Democrats had carried the state in the previous six presidential contents, usually by relatively narrow margins.

Sports fans in Pennsylvania also have been known to hold a grudge. Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost his re-election bid in 2014 after angering Penn State fans who viewed the governor as supporting the firing of legendary football coach Joe Paterno in the Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal. It wasn’t the only reason Mr. Corbett lost in a year when other state GOP candidates did well, but Mr. Madonna and other political analysts said it was a contributing factor.

Asked about the potential fallout with Pennsylvania’s voters, Mrs. Sanders said the episode was not intended as a slight to Eagles fans, adding the White House hopes that Pennsylvanians “would share the president’s commitment to the national anthem and the pride that we have in our country.”

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