The Eagles had no choice. Jeffrey Lurie, as the owner of the team that won Super Bowl LII, couldn’t reject an invitation to the White House, and he couldn’t allow his distaste for Donald Trump to keep the White House from offering an invitation. A man who preaches tolerance could not indulge his politics and deny players the opportunity to visit the place that has best represented democracy for more than 200 years. The invitation arrived Thursday.
The Eagles players do have a choice. The team plans to visit D.C. on June 5, but any player can opt out of the White House portion of the itinerary.
With that in mind, any Eagle who goes to the White House should know that such a visit further legitimizes the disturbing presidency of Trump. It is a presidency that Lurie, famously liberal and a supporter of Hillary Clinton, reportedly called “disastrous.” At this point in history, a celebratory visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. pardons a president who called a group of NFL players “sons of bitches” for legally and peacefully protesting police brutality and other oppressive behaviors during the playing of the national anthem the past two seasons. That includes several Eagles.
A visit to the White House didn’t always equal endorsement. Bruins goalie Tim Thomas snubbed Barack Obama in 2012, but had he gone, no one would have considered Thomas a “Yes We Can” man. It wasn’t like this when Michael Jordan shunned George H.W. Bush in 1991, or when Larry Bird blew off Ronald Reagan in 1984. In those not-so-distant days, the office of the presidency and the White House represented decency and honor.
Only a fool would argue that is the case now.
Then, you could stand near Obama, or Reagan, or Slick Willie Clinton, and you would not be considered part of their tribe. Now, attending a White House ceremony with Trump – attending any ceremony with Trump – becomes an act of political endorsement.
He makes it so. If you choose to enter his presence, you’ve chosen to be used. He claims the support of anyone who shares his space. The Eagles will share that space. This will expose them as pawns for his platform.
When the Penguins visited the White House last year, Trump used them as a weapon against the Golden State Warriors, whose outspoken reticence to visit the White House caused Trump to disinvite them. He welcomed the Pens by spiting the Dubs: “Everyone wanted to be here today. And I know why.”
We do, too.
Lurie declined to comment for this column, but two league sources confirmed that he considered keeping the team from attending. He has to go, and he has to act appropriately, even if shaking the hand of a man like Trump is a pebble in Lurie’s shoe.
Philosophically, though, Lurie and his team have always heard all voices. He has been aggressively progressive. Pragmatically, Lurie had to consider that declining an invitation might cast the team as unpatriotic. The team will likely tour other D.C. sites, and, bless their hearts, the Eagles have even tried to frame the White House visit as a decency summit:
“We are honored to receive this invitation and view this not only as an opportunity to be recognized for our on-field accomplishments but also as an opportunity to engage in productive dialogue with the leaders of our country.”
Productive dialogue? Malcolm Jenkins isn’t buying that. He said he’s not interested in a “photo op” with Trump. Who can blame him? The man called him a son of a bitch. Spurred by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, for the past two seasons Jenkins led a group of Eagles in protests during the anthem, and helped form a group called the Players Coalition, whose productive dialogue procured an $89 million commitment from the NFL.
Chris Long isn’t buying it, either. Long, who is white, supported Jenkins’ raised-fist protest and didn’t attend last year’s White House visit after his Patriots won Super Bowl LI. Neither did LeGarrette Blount, who also played for the Patriots in 2016 – the year Patriots owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady publicly supported Trump. Blount and Long (and Brady) were among a huge contingent of Patriots players who declined the invitation as attendance fell from 50 players in 2015 (with Obama in office) to 34 players in 2017, a 32 percent decrease that the Pats blamed on winning twice in three years.
Eagles champions Torrey Smith and Brandon Graham aren’t expected to attend, either. Jenkins said he understands why some teammates will go.
“I want to view the culture,” running back Corey Clement told CBS Philly. “I want to see what the White House really has to offer because growing up, you really don’t have an opportunity to go to the White House. I want to use every opportunity I have and make the best of it.”
That’s a worthy sentiment, and completely valid – if the White House didn’t offer Trump-free tours to the public.
Regardless of your feelings about Trump or his policies, he is a man with a following. Millions of people – some of them Eagles players – voted for Trump, who won Pennsylvania. It is because of these players, and players like Clement, that Lurie was right to accept the invitation. Some players are eager to meet the man who represents their values. Some players who didn’t vote for him can compartmentalize their political biases.
The thing is, Trump doesn’t need your vote to serve his ends. Simply standing on a stage with him turns you into a prop for his propaganda. Any Eagle who visits must realize that his presence aids an administration that constantly traffics in lies and xenophobia. In January, Trump called Haiti, El Salvador and parts of Africa “[bleep]hole countries.” Running back Jay Ajayi’s parents emigrated from Nigeria to England. Wonder what he thinks.
Legitimizing Trump might not be the intent of some (or any) of the Eagles. But that will be the result. It lays another brick in the wall.
Of course, the entire affair could turn into another embarrassment for the White House. What if the Eagles make the Patriots’ lack of attendance look like a throng? What if only a smattering of Eagles players show up? If that happens, the “photo op” will be as much a rebuke to the presidency as any endorsement tries to make it. We all know how sensitive Trump is to the size of things.
Look, in the grand scheme, this issue probably isn’t terribly important. Really, who’s going to remember some jock visited Trump?
One person surely will.
The person who does the visiting.