President Donald Trump warned NFL players on Tuesday about “escaping” to locker rooms during the playing of the National Anthem after he rescinded an invitation for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles to visit the White House.
“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!” Trump posted on Twitter.
He added, “NFL, no escaping to Locker Rooms!,” a reference to a new NFL policy giving players the option of remaining off the field during the playing of the anthem if they choose not to stand for it. Last month, the NFL announced teams could choose to require athletes in their arenas to stand during the playing of the anthem or face fines.
Trump’s decision to cancel the visit over the protests – which were spurred by black athletes over what they believe is systemic abuse by police against people of color – threatens to reignite a long-simmering, racially-tinged controversy.
The decision was made abruptly Monday after the White House was informed very few players would be attending, a White House official told CNN. The White House later acknowledged that the low expected attendance was a key factor, saying in a statement the team “decided to abandon their fans.”
The Eagles told the White House last Thursday that 81 people from its organization were expected to attend the celebration, the statement said. According to a senior administration official, the administration was informed that less than 10 people, including coaches and athletic trainers, were scheduled to attend the event.
The White House said it made attempts to reschedule the event and work with the franchise to accommodate a smaller group of players. A spokesperson for the Eagles declined to comment.
The low attendance infuriated Trump, who then decided to cancel the ceremony and hold one honoring the National Anthem instead, the White House official said. The President was well aware of what the optics would be if he posed with less than a dozen players.
Aides went back and forth for several hours drafting a statement, which in the end raised many questions because of the confusing tense, the official said. Though it was attributed to Trump, it varied between first- and third-person throughout.
Several staffers had been involved in planning the celebration, including White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, an Eagles fan.
It is still unclear what the patriotic celebration will look like Tuesday afternoon, even to White House officials, but Trump was insistent on holding an event. It could very well likely end up being just dozens of staffers, a source noted.
No Eagles knelt during regular season
Players on the Eagles are some of the most outspoken social justice activists in the NFL, and multiple players took part in the protests during the anthem over the last two seasons. Many players from the team were not planning on attending the ceremony as a protest of Trump, his policies and his outspoken criticism of players who chose to kneel during the anthem.
In the 2017 regular season, some players on the Eagles raised a fist but did not kneel. An NFL source said none of the players on the Eagles team that won the Super Bowl took a knee during the anthem during the regular season – one player took a knee in the preseason but was cut before the regular season began. Safety Malcolm Jenkins raised his fist during the anthem to protest racial injustice before some games, but he stopped when the NFL pledged to make a $100 million donation to various charities in November.
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Sophie Tatum, Jill Martin and Jake Tapper contributed to this report.