The Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory was just hours old when three players made clear they would not attend a White House celebration should President Trump extend an invitation. For those who are concerned about social justice issues, such a boycott is understandable. Still, the Eagles and their ownership should explore another option before a Twitter war buries this special opportunity.
Early Monday, Malcolm Jenkins of the Eagles told CNN that he “did not anticipate attending” a White House celebration. He was joined by Torrey Smith. Chris Long announced his intentions — should the Eagles win — last week. All three are leaders in the Players Coalition, a group that has been working with the NFL to better represent the concerns of football players advocating for social justice. Jenkins and Long, in particular, have distinguished themselves all season for their work off the field on issues like education and criminal justice reform.
However, one of the great challenges in the struggle for equality is lifting the voices of those who are not heard. Jenkins, Long, and Smith have platforms and are using them well, but there are a lot of Americans whose voices are not heard by this administration. The Eagles have been raising money for Philadelphia public schools; Jenkins has advocated publicly for bail bond reform; and tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians were among the hundreds of thousands of Americans who marched against sexual harassment and assault last month. Yet, largely missing from the discussion are the voices of the 16-year-old attending a failing public school, the father of four being held in prison because he can’t afford bail, and the factory worker who is sexually harassed on a regular basis.
Instead of boycotting the White House visit, what if the Eagles accepted and reframed the moment by offering an exchange?
The Eagles organization and the Players Coalition could host a one-day “Social Justice Summit,” in the city where the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were immortalized for all Americans. The summit would offer panels on public school education, criminal justice reform, and sexual assault and harassment. All three issues are human-rights issues, not partisan politics – no American political party can favor destroying our public education system, unjustly imprisoning Americans from lower-income communities, or assaulting women.
These issues deserve much more than a one-day gathering, but this summit would be different than the typical conference for three reasons. First, it would be televised nationally on PBS and streamed on YouTube. Second, the president or a member of his cabinet would attend each panel. Third, instead of experts, each panel presenter would be a citizen who offered a first-person testimonial about his or her experience. Cabinet members would have the opportunity to ask questions directly of the Americans impacted by their policies, a rare and unscripted opportunity in this day and age.
Consider the moment of empowerment that unfolded in a courtroom last month when the survivors of Larry Nassar’s abuse had the chance to speak out in their own words. Years from now, we will reflect on those testimonials as a watershed moment that advanced cultural change and accountability on reporting abuse. Imagine Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hearing directly from Philadelphia students and teachers about the lack of resources in their schools or Attorney General Jeff Sessions listening to Pennsylvania families speak to the impact of the bail system. Even if the Trump administration made no policy changes, it would be a galvanizing day for advocacy movements across the country. These nationally broadcast testimonials would yield untold progress going forward.
So why would President Trump agree to such a deal?
The president clearly does not like being considered a racist, and participating would provide him with the chance to rebut his critics, to demonstrate presidential empathy, and to be viewed, on TV, doing his job. In addition,
it was easy for President Trump to pick a fight with California’s Warriors and disinvite them to the White House after they won the NBA championship, not so with Pennsylvania’s Eagles. Trump won Pennsylvania by 68,236 votes in 2016. If he runs for reelection in 2020, he will be looking to win Pennsylvania again. A Twitter feud might play well among his base, but in eastern and central Pennsylvania, a photo-op with the Eagles and participation in this summit will look a lot better.
Eagles owner Jeff Lurie has portraits of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and other humanitarian heroes hanging in the team’s training facility, and he has a history of supporting social justice causes. Boycotts are a powerful advocacy tool, but they aren’t the only tool. Before a White House invitation is rejected or even issued, Lurie and his team should carefully consider all the possibilities for how best they can use their moment of triumph to advance the social justice causes so important to them and our country.
Benjamin Orbach is the CEO of the Ascendant Athlete, an advisory group that supports professional athletes to advance causes of social justice. BenjaminO@ascendantathlete.com