The real message is getting lost in White House's war on NFL

In the minutes and hours after President Donald Trump’s latest uppercut to the National Football League and its players, a handful of players could no longer take it.

Among them was Carolina Panthers receiver Torrey Smith, whose frustration poured out of him as he typed up a Twitter response to a White House statement Monday night in which President Donald Trump condemned the Philadelphia Eagles and rescinded their invite to visit him in Washington, D.C.

“So many lies,” Smith began, while quote-tweeting the President’s statement.

Sure, Smith’s annoyance was aimed at Trump, who continues to use the NFL and its players as a piñata to rally his base. But it was also rooted in Smith’s belief — which he shares with many players — that the ongoing assertion that players who protest during the anthem are un-American and anti-military is not only factually incorrect, but really unfair.

“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 White House statement read.

But for players like Smith, the belief is that Trump either doesn’t get — or doesn’t want to admit — the following truths: one, that many military service men and women understand and even support players’ right to protest during the anthem, and two, that the anthem protests have never, ever been about the military.

“The President continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti-military,” Smith wrote.

Smith’s former teammate, Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins — the head of the Players Coalition, which helped secure $90 million from the league for social justice causes — later posted an eloquent statement pointing out the same critique.

The decision was made to lie and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military,” Jenkins wrote.

I can absolutely tell you that Smith’s and Jenkins’ frustration in this moment is shared by many other players around the league, because once again, it’s important to remember that the protesting players that have made it clear publicly — numerous times — that the anthem protests are only about police brutality and social inequality against people of color. That’s it. Nothing else.

Many on the Philadelphia Eagles — and non-Eagles players across the NFL — are as frustrated as ever with The White House’s portrayal of player protests. (AP)
Many on the Philadelphia Eagles — and non-Eagles players across the NFL — are as frustrated as ever with The White House’s portrayal of player protests. (AP)

In fact, I can also tell you that these days, the military is widely respected and appreciated across the league by protesting players. It’s true. I’ve spoken with a number of players about the anthem over the past year, both publicly and privately, and many of them said that respect for the military is the reason they haven’t gone further with the protests. Were it not for that, fans might be dealing with widespread sitting instead of a raised fist or kneeling here and there.

That’s not to say players didn’t have other issues with the White House’s statement on Monday, of course. Smith also pointed out that the players who decided not to go to the White House — which was an overwhelming majority of the players (and not just the black ones), a source told Yahoo Sports — all did so for more reasons than Trump’s insistence that they stand, which was the only reason listed on the White House’s statement.

But players’ frustration really began to boil over when Fox News decided to show out-of-context photos of Eagles players kneeling during its reporting of the statement. The photos shown over the air were of Eagles players kneeling in prayer before the anthem, an important distinction because, you know, no Eagle actually knelt during the anthem last season, as the White House’s statement insinuated.

To them, it was just the latest example of the truth being spun in an effort to hurt their message.

“Imagine wanting to please the boss so very badly that you run stills of guys knelt down PRAYING during pregame,” Eagles defensive end Chris Long wrote on Twitter. “Not one Eagles player knelt for the anthem this yr. Keep carrying his water to sow division while misrepresenting Christian men.”

Long went on to say Fox is “complicit in PLAYING America,” and called it another day at the office for the cable news station, while Long’s teammate, tight end Zach Ertz, and San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman, were equally ticked.

“This can’t be serious,” Ertz wrote. “Praying before games with my teammates, well before the anthem, is being used for your propaganda?! Just sad, I feel like you guys should have to be better than this.”

“It’s called propaganda,” Sherman wrote. “It’s been used before but hey … those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”

The White House released a longer statement Tuesday afternoon, one that not only provided some detail on why the event was canceled, but also managed to escalate the contention by closing with the statement that “the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans.”

That last sentence was, to be sure, added only to as a final (for now) gut shot to the Eagles, but at this point it would be a mistake to assume that only the Eagles’ players are taking that personally. Others around the league are, too, even if they aren’t saying it publicly since the league they play for has already proven it won’t really have players’ backs on the matter. The owners showed that with the passage of the new anthem policy only a few weeks ago, which still failed to pacify the President, since he’s continued to rip the league’s players.

When football season rolls around, it’s hard to say what the end result of all this will be. Will more players choose to stay in the locker room? Will more players choose to raise their fists during the anthem in defiance? It’s way too early to tell.

Just know players’ frustration — and their resolve — is only getting stronger with every White House rip job.

“It takes courage to stand up for the TRUTH, even if it’s not a popular one,” Jenkins wrote in his statement.

“We will continue to fight for impacted citizens and give a voice to those who never had one.”

The White House booted the Eagles event and instead held a “celebration of America” event on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)
The White House booted the Eagles event and instead held a “celebration of America” event on Tuesday. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

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Dan Wetzel: NFL gets what it deserves for trying to appease Trump