WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump canceled the planned visit on Tuesday of the Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles to the White House, saying he disinvited the team after it disagreed with his call for players to stand for the national anthem.
Trump said in a statement late on Monday that the Eagles, who defeated the New England Patriots in the NFL’s Super Bowl in February, wanted to send a smaller delegation but that he declined.
“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,” Trump said.
Last season, some National Football League players took a knee during the anthem to protest police shootings of unarmed black men, sparking a controversy. The protests began in 2016 with former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Trump denounced the players as unpatriotic and repeatedly demanded an end to such protests.
Under a policy unveiled last month by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and welcomed by Trump, teams will be fined if players on the field fail to stand during “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Players who choose not to stand may remain in the locker room until the anthem is finished.
“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!” Trump tweeted later in the evening.
In his earlier statement, Trump said the Eagles wanted to a send a smaller delegation, “but the 1,000 fans planning to attend the event deserve better.”
“These fans are still invited to the White House to be part of a different type of ceremony – one that will honor our great country, pay tribute to the heroes who fight to protect it, and loudly and proudly play the National Anthem,” Trump said.
The Eagles did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Torrey Smith, who played as a wide receiver for the Eagles in the Super Bowl but has since been traded, responded on Twitter to Trump, saying that there were “so many lies.”
“Not many people were going to go,” Smith said, and “no one refused to go simply because Trump ‘insists’ folks stand for the anthem.”
Trump, he said, “continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti military.”
No player for the Eagles knelt or sat while there were 73 other protests among Eagles players during the National Anthem during the 2017 regular season, according to report by Sports Pundit, which tracked protests among the 32 NFL teams.
A player knelt and another player raised up his fist while a teammate put his arm around him during the anthem before a preseason game in August, local media reported.
Democratic U.S. Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania invited the team to visit the Capitol Building and called Trump’s action “a political stunt”.
(Reporting by Eric Beech; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Peter Cooney and Leslie Adler)