President Donald Trump abruptly disinvited this year’s Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from the White House this week, irked that most of the players were declining to attend. He hastily converted the event into a military celebration, betraying his authoritarian impulses, his racism and his profound ignorance of what “patriotism” means. “The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House. Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event. Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry,” Trump tweeted, even though not one of them took a knee during the entire season.
Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick protested during the 2016-17 season, first by sitting through the national anthem, then in later games by taking a knee. “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” he told NFL.com. His action resonated with millions of people, inspiring hundreds of other athletes, from professional teams down to high school leagues, to take a knee as well.
Trump lashed out at the NFL players, 70 percent of whom are African American, at an almost entirely white rally in Huntsville, Alabama, in September 2017: “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, out, he’s fired. He’s fired!'” The president told Fox News in May, “You have to stand proudly for the national anthem. Or you shouldn’t be playing … Maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
NFL team owners, overwhelmingly white men, half of whom are billionaires, held a secret meeting with several players in October, following Trump’s attacks. The New York Times obtained an audio recording of the three-hour meeting. Jeffrey Lurie, the Eagles’ owner, warned, “We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump.” Nevertheless, the NFL took Trump’s bait, issuing a new policy in May requiring players to “stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.” Players could choose to remain in their locker room, but refusing to stand during the anthem while on the field would result in the team being fined.
It was a U.S. Army veteran who advised Kaepernick to change his protest from sitting to taking a knee. Nate Boyer, a former NFL player and Green Beret, wrote an open letter to Kaepernick, and met with him. “I’m not judging you for standing up for what you believe in. It’s your inalienable right,” Boyer wrote. “What you are doing takes a lot of courage … I’ve never had to deal with prejudice because of the color of my skin.”
Protest takes courage, and often comes at a cost. Colin Kaepernick hasn’t been hired by any NFL team, even though he is indisputably one of the best quarterbacks in the country today. He is pursuing a formal grievance against the NFL, alleging collusion by the owners to keep him unsigned. His former teammate Eric Reid, who also took a knee and remains unsigned, is doing the same.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney praised the Eagles, saying, “These are players who stand up for the causes they believe in and who contribute in meaningful ways to their community.” These contributions include efforts by Eagles’ safety Malcolm Jenkins, who is part of a players’ coalition that has partnered with the NFL to commit at least $90 million to programs combating social inequality, Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz matching up to half a million dollars in donations to raise money for Haiti, and Eagles defensive end Chris Long donating his entire 2017 million dollar base salary to charity.
On Wednesday, Malcolm Jenkins responded to Trump’s disinvitation, silently holding a series of hand-written signs before members of the press. Some of them read:
“You aren’t listening.”
“More than 60 percent of people in prison are people of color.”
“Any given night 500,000 sit in jail. Convicted? No. Too Poor? Yes #EndCashBail.”
“Colin Kaepernick gave $1 million to charity.”
“In 2018 439 people shot and killed by police (thus far).”
At his brief replacement event at the White House on Tuesday, Trump tried and failed to sing along with the U.S. Army Chorus’ rendition of “God Bless America.” He didn’t know the words, just like he doesn’t know what patriotism is. Dissent is patriotic. These brave athletes, representing the city where the U.S. Constitution was drafted, have an important civics lesson for President Trump.