President Donald Trump wants the world to believe his decision to cancel a White House visit from the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles was about the team’s ― and the NFL’s ― supposed refusal to stand for the national anthem. Trump abruptly canceled the visit, which was scheduled for Tuesday, via a White House statement on Monday evening, before returning to his favorite medium to drive home his point.
“Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!” Trump tweeted Monday night, a reference to the NFL’s new policy requiring teams and their players to stand for the national anthem or stay in the locker room while it is played before games. If the new policy was driven by the cowardice of NFL owners who wanted to appease the president, this was the latest sign they had predictably and miserably failed.
But while the Trump tweet was more red meat for his base, it was also a useful reminder that his fight with NFL players ― from the Eagles, or any other team ― has never been about the national anthem or the kneeling itself, no matter his insistence to the contrary.
Only one Eagles player kneeled during the anthem in 2017, before a preseason game in August. That player was cut before the season began, and not a single Philadelphia Eagle kneeled during the anthem through the entirety of the regular season. The Eagles players who protested at all during the anthem stopped once the Players Coalition, of which Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins was a vocal leader, reached an agreement with the NFL in November. No member of the Eagles or any other team protested during the anthem throughout the NFL playoffs this winter. Before the NFL revived the issue with its new policy in May, in fact, it seemed likely that the protests that had taken place over the past two seasons would not have occurred this fall.
So the fact that fewer than 10 of Philadelphia’s 53 players planned to make the trip to Washington was rooted in substantive opposition to the president’s policies, words and actions. As much as Trump would like the dispute to be a culture war skirmish about the anthem and the ungrateful athletes who won’t stand for it, the Eagles players’ renunciation was about his presidency ― and their lack of belief that anything positive could come from a glorified “photo op.”
Aside from one weekend of symbolic but ultimately toothless protests driven by those same scared NFL owners ― some of whom appeared next to players in a cynical show of “solidarity” against the president’s targeting of their business ― little of the sports world’s opposition to Trump, in fact, has been centered on the anthem. And hardly any of his own actions have actually concerned the song, either. Trump’s fight with the sports figures who have criticized him ― the majority of whom are black ― is not about what takes place during 100 seconds of music, but about power and fealty, and his belief that NFL players and other black athletes are displaying too much of one and not enough of the other.
This should have been clear from Trump’s “cancellation” of a White House visit the Golden State Warriors never planned to make last year, after superstar Stephen Curry criticized the president. It should have been clear from the White House’s fight with ESPN anchor Jemele Hill shortly thereafter, or from Trump’s blasting of LaVar Ball. No one on the Warriors had protested during the anthem; neither had Hill or Ball.
Instead, they had challenged the president over the views he had espoused and the policies he had sought to enact; they had pointed out (correctly) that many of those policies were based in racism and white supremacy; they had refused, in Ball’s case, to show deference to a president who hadn’t actually done anything to help Ball free his son from potential incarceration in China.
That hasn’t stopped Trump’s supporters and even some in the media ― especially, but not only, his friends at Fox News ― from adopting Trump’s frame that the problem with the Eagles, and with the NFL, is that this is a legitimate dispute over proper anthem protocol. But the anthem is not the issue here. Not for the majority of the NFL’s protesters, who like Jenkins want to talk about racial inequality, a racist criminal justice system, or the nearly 400 black Americans who have been killed by police since Colin Kaepernick first began his demonstration nearly two years ago. And not for Trump, who along with Vice President Mike Pence has bastardized the anthem for his own political ends, blatantly committing the same perceived crime the players stand accused of.
For the president, who may or may not even know the words to the song, the anthem is only a useful weapon in his broader campaign of silencing black athletes, black sports figures and black people who would dare challenge him. At bottom, it has nothing to do with who is and isn’t kneeling for the anthem. It’s about who is and isn’t kneeling to him.