WASHINGTON — President Trump abruptly called off the White House celebration honoring the Super Bowl-champion Philadelphia Eagles after nearly all of the players and coaches said they would boycott the visit after the president’s demands that players stand during the national anthem at games.
White House officials said that fewer than 10 members of the team were planning to attend the celebration on Tuesday afternoon on the South Lawn despite weeks of planning for the event, which is usually a nonpolitical celebration of a football victory.
Instead, this year’s event to honor the Eagles has become a bitter reflection of the deep divisions in the United States over race, patriotism and Trump himself. When it became clear that most members of the team would not attend, Trump issued a blistering statement disinviting them.
“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow,” Trump said in a statement released Monday evening. “They disagree with their president because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”
Trump said in the statement that more than 1,000 fans who had been invited to the celebration would still be welcome at the White House for what the president called “a different type of ceremony — one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the national anthem.”
The president said he would “be there at 3 p.m. with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus to celebrate America.”
Team officials could not be reached for comment. The team released a statement on Twitter late Monday that did not address the controversy but praised the team’s fans for their support as the franchise won its first championship.
“Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration,” the statement said.
Some Eagles players addressed the issue more directly, disputing parts of the president’s statement. Torrey Smith, a former wide receiver for the Eagles, lashed out at Trump in a tweet shortly after the statement was released.
“So many lies,” Smith wrote. “Here are some facts 1. Not many people were going to go 2. No one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem 3. The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military.”
In a statement late Monday, Mayor Jim Kenney of Philadelphia said that disinviting the Eagles “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.”
“City Hall is always open for a celebration,” he added.
It is not unprecedented for some athletes to skip White House celebrations of their victories, sometimes for political reasons. A handful of New England Patriots players skipped the celebration in 2017. Larry Bird, the famous Boston Celtics player, skipped a visit with Ronald Reagan in 1984. Michael Jordan, of the Chicago Bulls, did not participate in a White House celebration with President George H.W. Bush in 1991, reportedly citing scheduling issues.
But rarely — if ever — has a dispute between sports figures and a president escalated so quickly, and so spectacularly.
The clash between the Eagles and the president is the culmination of a cultural controversy that Trump inflamed last September when he attacked former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick for kneeling during the national anthem in protest of police brutality toward African-Americans.
“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 said at an Alabama rally.
The comments set off a fierce national debate over the rights of the football players to protest during a moment of national exposure. Trump repeatedly refused to back down, saying the issue was about respect for the American flag and casting his position as the patriotic one.
And late Monday, the president reiterated those thoughts. “The Philadelphia Eagles Football Team was invited to the White House,” he tweeted. “Unfortunately, only a small number of players decided to come, and we canceled the event.”
Many of the players disagreed, saying their protests during the anthem had been about issues they cared deeply about. Still, in the days after the president’s initial comments last year, many players in the league knelt before games to protest Trump. The argument about how players should behave during the national anthem at games continued behind closed doors for months. In October, at a meeting at the NFL headquarters, players and team owners debated how the league should respond to the president’s criticism. The New York Times obtained an audio recording of the meeting.
The three-hour discussion revealed deep divisions among the players and their team owners. League owners appeared intent on finding a way to avoid Trump’s continued jabs, which they believed had turned many fans against the NFL.
Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie said at the meeting that Trump’s presidency had been “disastrous,” but cautioned against players getting drawn into the president’s tactics.
“We’ve got to be careful not to be baited by Trump or whomever else,” Lurie said during the October meeting. “We have to find a way to not be divided and not get baited.”
Lurie did not respond to an e-mail requesting comment late Monday night.
The tension between the president and the players was rekindled in recent weeks when NFL owners decreed last month that players would face punishment — and their teams could be fined — if they knelt during the national anthem. The owners said players could stay in the locker room during the playing of the anthem if they chose to.
The players association denounced the decision, saying it violated the “principles, values and patriotism of our league.” But Trump hailed the decision. Speaking to reporters, he said that if a player decided not to stand for the national anthem, “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.”
In his tweet late Monday night, Trump criticized players who would choose to remain in the locker room.
“Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” Trump wrote.
The continuing dispute about the playing of the national anthem at the beginning of football games was the backdrop for discussions between the White House and the Eagles about the celebration of their Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots in February.
Normally, a White House visit would be an automatic decision. But by late April, an announcement had still not been made. After several inquiries, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said that “we have been in conversations with the Eagles about timing and are working with them to make it happen.”
A visit was later announced and a date set, for Tuesday, June 5.
But the controversy apparently continued in the background. One senior White House official said that, initially, more than 80 members of the Eagles team requested security clearance to attend Tuesday’s event. But after the NFL’s decision last month on kneeling at games, the number who said they planned to attend dwindled rapidly.
A second senior White House official said that the president was irked by the final decision of the team to send just a handful of representatives despite the fact that so many of the team’s fans had been invited. Both officials said the president saw it as a sign of disrespect for the office of the presidency and the people’s house.
Normally, dozens of players and coaches attend the celebration, which typically concludes with a picture of the president with the entire team standing in front of the White House. With only a handful of players expected to attend, the event would have been very different.
The official, who agreed to talk about private discussions with the team on the condition of anonymity, said the fans — some of whom had already traveled to Washington for the event when it was called off — were being notified that they are still invited.
It was unclear how many would decide to attend.
Reaction to the abrupt cancellation of the team visit at the White House was fierce, especially among Eagles fans.
Some said on Twitter that the team should have attended and criticized players for failing to support the nation’s military. Others staunchly defended the team and said it was the president who was turning a football event into a political one.
US Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, quickly tweeted an invitation for the players and coaches to visit the building at the opposite end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
“I’m proud of what the @Eaglesaccomplished this year,” Casey wrote. “I’m skipping this political stunt at the White House and just invited the Eagles to Congress. @Eagles How about a tour of the Capitol?”