Athletes Can No Longer Play Nice

The Philadelphia Eagles run a play during Super Bowl LII, February 4, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The Philadelphia Eagles' aborted White House visit shows it’s no longer possible to separate the office of the presidency from the incumbent.

There is an old retort often flung by lawyers in crime shows when they are threatened by a judge with being held in contempt of court:

“It’s not the court that’s earning my contempt!”

That is the Philadelphia Eagles’ problem with President Trump. An invitation from the commander-in-chief of the United States to visit the White House in celebration of your Super Bowl victory sounds like a great time, but you can’t visit this particular commander-in-chief without appearing to endorse his conflict with the NFL over the national anthem or, for that matter, his conflict with anyone about anything.

A brief review of the facts of the case is in order. The NFL anthem protests date from August 2016 and were begun by Colin Kaepernick, who affirmed that he would not honor the flag of a country oppressive to black people. Trump involved himself in September 2017 with his famous call for NFL owners to “get that son of a b**** off the field.” Steph Curry, member of the likewise invited, NBA-champion Golden State Warriors, took exception to this, and eventually the whole team demurred. This week, after similar criticism from Eagles players, Trump rescinded the Eagles’ invitation.

Lest it appear that Trump is the sole provocateur and the players the victims of unwarranted persecution, let us recall that Chris Long, Martellus Bennett, and Devin McCourty all refused to accompany the other New England Patriots when they were invited to the White House after their Super Bowl win in 2017, long before Trump said anything about protests or flags or SOBs. They objected to Trump in general and refused to be seen with a man whom they politically resented. Nor did the president wheel out the Twitter artillery against these men; he correctly shrugged the whole thing off, just as President Obama correctly shrugged off Bruins goalie Tim Thomas’s 2012 absence in protest of a federal government “out of control.”

Thus while there may have been some on the Warriors or the Eagles who refused to accept Trump’s invitation because they thought he was bullying athletes on this particular issue, there are and have been others who declined such invitations because they hate Trump for any number of other reasons. In other words, they no longer think it possible to separate the office of the presidency from the incumbent of that office; respecting the former appears to them an approval of the latter.

In the good old days, this separation was possible. Reagan, who solidified the tradition of inviting sports teams, reprised his role as the Gipper and threw the football around with the ’88 Redskins, none of whom saw fit to stay home in protest of the crack wars, which are still described as a hair-on-fire effort by the federal government to lock up as many black people as possible. After all, an invitation from the leader of the free world seems appropriate for athletes who have recently earned the title “World Champions,” albeit in sports most of the planet does not play. One imagines that the first few teams ever offered such a visit, unless they were full of snarling anarchists, enjoyed the honor of strolling around the White House as the president’s personal guests.

Not anymore. People who were falling over themselves to visit Barack Obama, our last cool president, will not visit Donald Trump. In a strange bit of irony, a six-year-old Bleacher Report piece gets it right — it’s written about the aforementioned Tim Thomas, but the same applies to Trump.

“Tim Thomas the INDIVIDUAL,” writes the author, using the capitals from a statement by Thomas, “was never invited. Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins goalie, was.” Likewise, Donald Trump, the president of the United States, acting in the long-standing official tradition of being nice, invited the Super Bowl Champions to the White House. Now, it is unreasonable to demand the kind of separation between spheres of life that Dickens’s Mr. Wemmick maintained, but surely athletes can visit the president without sullying themselves politically or morally, even if they find him loathsome. After all, Tim Thomas was assessed as a querulous rube, but somehow Bennett and Co. are standing up for America.

Meanwhile, President Trump, who is often correct in re but obnoxious in modo, is not making this easier. The decision to cancel the event with Philadelphia is clearly a game of “you can’t fire me; I quit” to save him the ignominy of being turned down by the Eagles as he was by the Warriors. In that respect, it bears an amusing similarity to the initial cancellation of the meeting with Kim Jong-un.

Besides that, however, Trump has done nothing out of the ordinary. If he wanted to snub the NFL, he would have refused to invite the Eagles in the first place. As it happened, he continued the tradition of inviting the Super Bowl winners irrespective of his feud, and only after he thought they might snub him did he hastily change his mind. The blame for turning a harmless White House visit into a political stunt falls not on Trump but on the players and their miscalibrated moral sensitivities.

NOW WATCH: ‘White House Takes Back Super Bowl Winner’s Invitation’


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