WASHINGTON (Circa) — It has often been said that politics is a game. Since President Donald Trump took office it's a game played increasingly with professional athletes.
On Tuesday, the president celebrated the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles notably without a single player present at the White House ceremony.
The White House rebranded the event as a "Celebration of America."
Trump addressed a crowd on the South Lawn, taking a moment "to explain why young Americans stand for our national anthem." He went on to boast that the country has never done better than under his administration and said the size of the crowd was "bigger than we anticipated."
Trump made no mention of the Philadelphia Eagles or their fans.
The president originally expected to greet the 81 players, coaches, management and support personnel to show for the event on the South Lawn, according to a statement released by the White House on Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, the Eagles offered to send only a tiny handful of representatives, while making clear that the great majority of players would not attend the event, despite planning to be in D.C. today," the White House statement read. "In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans."
The claim that the Eagles abandoned their fans followed another harsh statement from the White House on Monday when the press office wrote, "They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country."
Philadelphia's Democratic Mayor Jim Kenney shot back, stating Trump's decision to disinvite the Eagles "only proves that our President is not a true patriot, but a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party to which no one wants to attend."
Typically the White House ceremony for the National Football League champions isn't a headline grabber. But when Trump weighed in on the issue of players standing for the national anthem, he blurred the line between sports and politics.
The president's influence on the game went beyond football.
After the National Football League champions turned down their White House invite, National Basketball Association all-starLeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers said regardless of who wins the NBA finals, neither team will visit the Trump White House. "No one wants the invite," LeBron James told reporters.
Steph Curry of the Golden State Warriors, whose team canceled their championship visit to the White House last year, followed up with reporters saying he agreed with LeBron. If the Warriors win again this year, he said they would "stay consistent" with how they handled the invite last year.
According to University of Cincinnati political scientist David Niven, the fight between the White House and professional athletes has "spiraled out of control" and is becoming increasingly personal.
"The league, the team owners didn't seek this fight and in truth, the players never made it about Trump," Nevin explained. "They wanted attention for what they considered to be real problems in the country, and it's Trump who made this personal."
Richard Lapchick of the University of Central Florida and president of the Institute for Sport and Social Justice explained that it was President Trump "who put sport in play." Before he went after the NFL at the start of the 2017 season, only a small handful of players knelt for the national anthem.
In 2015, Colin Kaepernick was essentially alone in taking a knee during the anthem to demonstrate against racial injustice and police brutality. After the 49ers' second-string quarterback was essentially pushed out of the league, only a few players knelt in protest, until Trump weighed in.
In a series of tweets and public statements, the president attacking players who took a knee as sons of b----es. He said the players were disrespecting the American flag, the military, veterans, fallen soldiers and the country and he encouraged the league to fire players who refused to stand for the anthem.
Trump's characterization of the protests are "a distortion of what they stand for," Lapchick said.
"The players have clearly said right from the beginning this is not anti-patriotic, not anti-flag. It's a statement about social justice issues, particularly racial justice issues," he said. "It was born out of respect for veterans." Kapaernick took a knee after discussion with a U.S. Army veteran and fellow player Nate Boyer.
Stephen Mosher, the coordinator of sports studies at Ithaca College, said Trump seized on a legitimate social justice demonstration, "and turned it into a bizarre (and completely illogical) argument about the national anthem."
"President Trump is calling these athletes unpatriotic and he is as wrong as one could possibly be in this case. He should actually inform himself on the U.S. Flag Code and he might learn just how wrong he is," Mosher said.
Though there is a much longer American tradition of not playing the national anthem at sporting events, recent polls show a large portion of the American public believes pro athletes should stand for the "Star Spangled Banner."
A Washington Post poll from May found 53 percent of Americans said it's "never appropriate" to kneel during the national anthem.
Another survey asked more whether professional athletes should be required to stand during the anthem at sporting events. In that case, 60 percent said they should stand.
Amid the divided public response to the NFL protests and President Trump elevating the issue in tweets and speeches, the NFL found itself in an impossible position.
Last month, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, announced a new policy requiring all members of the 32 NFL teams to "stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem." The policy was adopted by the team owners without feedback from the players union, which opposed the change. Players who don't want to stand for the anthem can wait in the locker room, otherwise, the team will be fined.
The NFL's policy change followed months of President Trump calling on the league to fine or fire players who kneel during the anthem.
Based on the president's tweets, the policy change will not mark the end of the anthem fight. Before the Tuesday ceremony, that opened with the singing of the national anthem, Trump teased, "NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!"
We will proudly be playing the National Anthem and other wonderful music celebrating our Country today at 3 P.M., The White House, with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus. Honoring America! NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 5, 2018
Last year Trump suggested staying in the locker rooms was "almost as bad as kneeling."
After the NFL announced the new anthem policy, some anticipated it would put the owners increasingly at odds with the players. Others saw the league caving in to political pressure from a president who raised millions of dollars in campaign contributions from at least a half-dozen team owners in 2016.
So far only one team owner has stood up for his players' right to kneel. New York Jets co-owner Christopher Johnson announced last month he would pay the fines if members of the team took a knee.
"The league is literally trying to bend both ways on this," Nevin said. "They're trying to extricate themselves from this situation with the anthem policy but at the very same time they made commitments to the players to fund the causes the players have highlighted."
That includes an $89 million commitment to fund local and national community efforts related to social justice reform.
Mosher called the NFL's anthem policy "completely unwise," noting the decision to leave the players out of the national anthem policy makes the $89 million funding promise "appear entirely as an insincere payoff."
After the NFL bent to the political pressure over the national anthem, it may seem as though Trump is winning the sports culture war. Lapchick, who wrote about the history of politics and international sports, sees the arc bending towards the athletes who can have a profound cultural impact.
"When athletes become active on social justice issues," he said, "it brings attention to issues that might not have had attention brought to it before."