WASHINGTON —After President Donald Trump canceled Tuesday's salute to the NFL champion Philadelphia Eagles, the White House accused the players of abandoning their fans because many had said they wouldn't show up. Trump quickly scheduled a "Celebration of America" with military bands in the event's place as he stoked fresh controversy over players who protest racial injustice by taking a knee during the national anthem.
Fuming over the risk of a low Eagles' turnout, Trump late Monday announced the usual Super Bowl celebration was off.
Spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the team had notified the White House last Thursday that 81 members, including players, coaches and managers would be attending. But she said the team got back in touch late Friday and tried to reschedule, "citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance." They proposed a time when Trump would be overseas.
Sanders said the White House continued to work with the team over the weekend, but in the end, "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."
"In other words," she added, "the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans." She later called it a "political stunt."
Eagles officials declined immediate comment on the White House version of events. An earlier team statement said, "Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration. We are truly grateful for all of the support we have received and we are looking forward to continuing our preparations for the 2018 season."
Fewer than 10 Eagles players planned to attend the White House ceremony, according to a team official familiar with the plans who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the issue.
Trump had originally said the event had been scrapped because some Eagles players "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" — even though none of the Super Bowl champion Eagles had taken a knee during the anthem in 2017.
"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!" he tweeted.
That was a challenge to a new NFL policy intended to quell the controversy surrounding the protests that began in 2016 when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem. Kaepernick's protest was intended to raise awareness around racism and, specifically, the killing of black men by police.
The policy announced last month requires players protesting racial injustice to stand if they're on the field during the national anthem or else stay in the locker room. Trump tweeted that, "Staying in the Locker Room for the playing of our National Anthem is as disrespectful to our country as kneeling. Sorry!"
The National Football League Players Association, the union representing NFL players, said in a statement that it was disappointed by the decision to disinvite the players and said the reversal had led to the cancellation of several community service events for young people in the Washington area.