Donald Trump is again using patriotism as a prop, and this time the Eagles are unwitting co-stars in his political theater.
The trouble began when fewer than 10 members of the Eagles‘ Super Bowl-winning team opted to not follow tradition and visit the president at the White House. In a response that smacked of petty political opportunism, Trump disinvited the team, and in doing so, portrayed the tiff as a referendum on the national anthem, a centuries-old song whose lyrics many Americans don’t even know.
Just like that, 53 men who worked their entire lives to reach the pinnacle of their profession were caught in the middle of a sideshow the likes of which we’ve seldom seen. And an Eagles fan base that has waited generations for a championship found the team we so desperately love at the center of a political storm.
This is America in the age of Trump.
It’s a place divided along the lines of race and class, politics and preference, and now along the sacred lines of sport. Thanks to a president who desperately needed a distraction from the investigation of his campaign’s connections to Russia, children’s heroes have been cast as villains, and and all of America becomes fodder in a culture war.
It is a war in which the players of the NFL, 70 percent of whom are African American, make a tempting target for Trump. Trump is, after all, a politician who made his bones by peddling the racist theory that the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, was not born in the United States and was therefore unqualified to be president. Like much of what Trump has said since then, that was a lie, but it was red meat for a segment of the population unhappy with a black president.
Similarly, Trump’s base was dissatisfied with black NFL players who followed the lead of former San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick by kneeling during the national anthem to protest police brutality. Trump whipped his base into a frenzy by targeting those black men, and like he did with Obama, he used a lie to do so.
Trump mischaracterized the NFL players’ demonstration against police brutality as a protest against the flag and the military, and called NFL protesters sons of bitches who should be fired for demonstrating in that manner. As Trump’s rhetoric took hold, NFL ratings continued a downward trend that preceded the Trump-driven controversy, and NFL owners eventually mandated that players stand during the anthem or remain off the field until the song’s completion.
But that wasn’t enough for Trump.
He had to use the Eagles’ canceled White House visit to repeat his false narrative about players protesting the flag. In doing so, he sought to drive a wedge between football fans and the teams we love.
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
That is an especially troubling truth in Philadelphia, where many of us — regardless of race or class, religion or ethnicity — are bred to love our Eagles and to remain loyal to them no matter what the cost.
The cost, for so many of us, has been great.
We have watched coaches like Dick Vermeil and Andy Reid build teams that were virtual juggernauts, only to watch championships slip through their outstretched hands. We have watched prodigies like Chip Kelly self-destruct and take our best players down with them. We have watched with anxious pride as our team has revitalized men like Michael Vick. We have clung to the unbreakable legends of men like Chuck Bednarik and Reggie White.
Those rocky years of unfulfilled love bonded Philadelphians in a way that little else could. It built in us a cynicism that made us feel impervious to hurt, a toughness that can only come from loss, and a bond that is constructed from shared experience. It made us brothers and sisters.
That’s why — even as the country was divided around us — we came together to tailgate as Nick Foles drove us to the Super Bowl. It’s why hundreds of people joined me at City Hall to pray in the days before the Eagles won the Super Bowl. It’s why Jason Kelce’s profane victory speech filled us all with pride. It’s why we cried when fans took loved ones’ ashes to the parade.
Donald Trump’s attack on the Eagles is so much more than what he meant it to be. Because football is more than political theater. For long-suffering fans, it is a metaphor for life. While Trump claims it’s about players kneeling, no Eagle did that during the season, no Eagle claimed to hate this country, and no Eagle spoke in opposition to our service members. In fact, most did just the opposite.
So while our president attacks black men for standing against injustice, I’ll be praying that Philadelphians will stand together. This team, after all, belongs to all of us, and this country does, as well.
Solomon Jones is the author of 10 books. Listen to him weekdays from 10 a.m. to noon on Praise 107.9 FM.
Meet Solomon Jones at City Hall at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday for A Prayer For The City – Part 3