(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump ratcheted up his feud with the National Football League, disinviting the Philadelphia Eagles from a celebration marking the team’s Super Bowl win after only a “tiny handful” of players agreed to attend, according to a White House statement.
Trump instead hosted what he billed as a “Celebration of America,” taking aim at NFL players who have taken a knee or sat on the bench while the national anthem is played in protest of police brutality and racism. No Eagles players engaged in such protests during the football season, according to a player on the team and media reports.
“I want to take this opportunity to explain why young Americans stand for our national anthem,” Trump said in a ceremony on the White House’s South Lawn, standing surrounded by uniformed members of the U.S. Army Chorus. “ Maybe it’s about time that we understood: We stand to honor our military and to honor our country.”
Following Trump’s remarks, the chorus led the singing of “God Bless America.” Trump sang a few fragments of the song, mostly nodding his head to the music. Trump was on the stage only a few minutes.
Many professional athletes have made plain their antipathy toward Trump, and several have publicly accused Trump of racism, citing his equivocation over white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year and other actions.
‘Racial and Social Equality’
Malcolm Jenkins, a safety for the Eagles, released a statement on Twitter saying that the players are “fighting for racial and social equality,” and that no Eagles players knelt during the national anthem.
“Instead the decision was made to lie, and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military,” Jenkins said. “We will continue to fight for impacted citizens and give a voice to those who never had one.”
Asked about the president’s decision to rescind the Eagles’ invitation, Cleveland Cavaliers basketball player LeBron James dismissed it as “typical of him,” in an interview with reporters ahead of Game 3 in the National Basketball Association Finals. Cleveland is playing the Golden State Warriors.
“I know regardless of who wins this series, no one wants an invite anyway,” James added, according to USA Today, “It won’t be Cleveland or Golden State going.”
The Warriors didn’t visit the White House after winning the championship last year and instead went to the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture.
Many Players Declined
White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the Eagles contacted the White House late Friday to try to reschedule the event planned for Tuesday because “many players would not be in attendance.” Trump is scheduled to be out of the country on the alternative dates the team proposed, she said in the statement.
Sanders blamed the players for the cancellation. “In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” she said.
Trump was facing a repeat of last year’s ceremony, when several New England Patriots, including quarterback Tom Brady, opted not to attend. He announced in a tweet he would have military bands play the national anthem at the White House Tuesday in place of the scheduled appearance by the Eagles.
“The Philadelphia Eagles are unable to come to the White House with their full team to be celebrated tomorrow,” Trump said in a tweet Monday evening. “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.”
“The Eagles wanted to send a smaller delegation,” the president added, “but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”
In a tweet later on Monday night, Trump said, "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!"
In a Twitter message of its own, the NFL Players Association said it was "disappointed" by Trump’s move, which it said prompted the cancellation of community events involving players in the Washington area.
"This decision by the White House has led to the cancellation of several player-led community service events for young people," the group said on its official account. "NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place."
Trump and the White House have spent much of the past year waging a public relations campaign against the NFL. At an Alabama political rally last September, Trump called for firing players who take part in the protests, saying team owners should “get that son of a bitch off the field.”
Several top Trump administration officials, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, have publicly called for the NFL owners to create a new rule banning players from kneeling during the anthem.
Last month, the league unveiled a new policy that requires players to stand during the national anthem or face team fines. Players who remain in the locker room would not face penalties. Trump said he welcomed the policy, but wished it would’ve gone further.
“I don’t think people should be staying in the locker rooms,” Trump said last month in an interview on Fox News’ “Fox & Friends” program. “You shouldn’t be playing, you shouldn’t be there. Maybe they shouldn’t be in the country.”
Before last year’s event, Brady cited “personal family matters” as his reason for not attending. Others, including safety Devin McCourty, cited political opposition to Trump’s presidency.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to questions about why the president made a different decision for the event with the Eagles. Representatives of the NFL and the Eagles didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Eagles won the Super Bowl on Feb. 4, beating the Patriots. Patriots owner Bob Kraft is a billionaire and personal friend of Trump’s of more than two decades. Kraft Group LLC, a firm associated with Kraft, gave Trump’s inaugural committee $1 million.
In a recording released by the New York Times, Jeffrey Lurie, the chairman and chief executive officer of the Eagles, called the Trump presidency “disastrous.” The recording was made at a league meeting last fall.
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