NFL players who chose to take a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police violence in America have found themselves on the receiving end of harsh criticism from Republicans and their supporters all season long. At one point, President Trump called for their firing in addition to labeling them “sons of bitches” because he deemed their protests disrespectful to veterans.
The Eagles were both criticized and praised for having not one single player participate in the #TakeAKnee movement this past season. But team players aligned in other ways with the protest started by former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
This past season, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins raised his fist during the national anthem — a protest reminiscent of the black power salute by two American track stars at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. And Jenkins told CNN on Monday that he plans to skip the White House visit.
“Nah, I personally do not anticipate attending,” he said on the “New Day” program.
Jenkins is not the only Eagle who plans to forgo having Trump congratulate him in person.
After Trump criticized NFL players at a September rally in Alabama, Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith tweeted that Trump is “the most divisive person in this entire country.”
Before Sunday's win, he announced that he would not attend the customary White House visit if the Eagles won, and he reminded listeners that the protest has nothing to do with disrespecting veterans, despite conservatives' attempts to frame it that way.
“People call it an anthem protest; it’s not an anthem protest. It’s a protest during the anthem. When my father dies, he’ll be buried with a flag draped over his casket after serving in the military,” he said.
And defensive end Chris Long, who skipped the White House visit last year with running back LeGarrette Blount, said he would do the same again this year. Long and Blount both played on the Patriots team that won last year's Super Bowl but signed with the Eagles before this past season's championship run.
“No, I’m not going to the White House. Are you kidding me?” he said during an interview on the “Pardon My Take” podcast last Sunday.
For decades, football has been viewed as an institution that all Americans could get behind — and to some degree, a sport that separated Americans from other citizens around the world.
But in the current political climate, in which the overwhelming majority of Americans called the president’s first year in office a bad one for race relations, football will continue to be something of a measuring stick for one’s politics.
Even before the game, Trump reemphasized his position that athletes should abandon their protest and focus on veterans.
In a statement, he said:
“Though many of our nation's service members are unable to be home with family and friends to enjoy this evening's American tradition, they are always in our thoughts and prayers. We owe these heroes the greatest respect for defending our liberty and our American way of life. Their sacrifice is stitched into each star and every stripe of our Star-Spangled Banner. We hold them in our hearts and thank them for our freedom as we proudly stand for the national anthem.”
While quick to invoke veterans, Trump has yet to respond to the numerous members of the military who support the protest. And many Americans believe that Trump’s either-or response to the issue misses an opportunity to talk about ongoing racial discrimination within the military.
This football season ended pretty much the way it began — with many Americans divided on the issue of race in America. Throughout history, citizens have looked to their political leaders and even entertainers, athletes included, to help guide their views on such issues. There appear to be no signs that political leaders and athletes are budging much in this area.
While some Trump supporters will point to decreased interest in football as proof that they are winning this culture war, a far more important test will be the 2018 midterm elections — contests that the GOP approaches with low popularity, especially from black voters and those who sympathize with their views of race in America.
Although the football season has ended, conversations about race, free speech and veterans in America have not. How political leaders, including those occupying the Oval Office, engage them could be instrumental in shaping public policies in the future.