‘Patriotism’ vs. ‘Free Speech’ Debate Plays Out on White House Lawn

A debate over patriotism and the right of free expression is continuing in the United States with President Donald Trump extending his criticism of professional athletes who decline to stand for the national anthem.  

The controversy was on display Tuesday afternoon on the White House South Lawn, where Trump briefly presided over a quickly reformatted celebration after his administration accused America’s champion professional football team of attempting to turn the event into a “political stunt.”

Trump the previous day had disinvited the Philadelphia Eagles from what was to be a celebration of their Super Bowl victory. Many of the Eagles’ players had indicated they would not attend in response to Trump’s harsh criticism of athletes who have refused to stand during pregame performances of the national anthem — even though all the Eagles stood for the anthem last season.

Speaking to fans

Trump relabeled Tuesday’s gathering as a “celebration of the American flag.” Speaking for 3½ minutes, he told flag-waving invited fans of the team that he wanted to explain why “young Americans stand for a national anthem. Maybe it’s about time we understood.”

One attendee shouted at the president to “stop hiding behind the armed services and the national anthem.” That prompted booing and the man was escorted from the event.

Trump concluded by saying that the celebration turned out to be “even bigger than we anticipated” had the football players attended.

Media reports said as few as five to 10 players had planned to attend Tuesday’s event. “The vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans,” the White House said in a statement Tuesday.

“The Eagles are the ones who tried to change their commitment at the 11th hour,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters just prior to the event. “If this wasn’t a political stunt by the Eagles franchise, then they wouldn’t have planned to attend the event and then backed out at the last minute.”

A White House statement said Trump withdrew the invitation “after extensive discussions” with the team.

On May 31, the Eagles said 81 members of the organization, including players, coaches, management and support personnel, had committed to attend, according to the statement.

But the White House noted many players had indicated last Friday they would not attend, prompting it to try to reschedule the event. The team, according to administration officials, proposed new dates, but they conflicted with Trump’s travel schedule.

Trump said Monday, “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.”

National Football League players have knelt during the anthem to protest police brutality and racial inequality. Nearly 70 percent of NFL players are African-American.

The president has repeatedly denounced the players as unpatriotic and demanded an end to such protests.

​’Not going to apologize’

“He’s not going to apologize for it,” Sanders replied when asked about whether the president understood why some players kneel during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “The president doesn’t think this is an issue simply of free speech.” 

In response to Trump’s rescinding his invitation, the Super Bowl championship team issued a statement saying, “Watching the entire Eagles community come together has been an inspiration.”

The NFL Players Association said the union is disappointed with the White House decision, adding: “NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place.”

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney criticized the move by Trump and said the Eagles “represent the diversity of our nation — a nation in which we are free to express our opinion.”

Kenney, a member of the opposition Democratic Party, said, “Disinviting them from the White House only proves that our president is not a true patriot, but a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party which no one wants to attend.”

Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who played for the Eagles last season, responded via Twitter to Trump’s decision.

“So many lies,” he wrote, adding, “Not many people were going to go.”

Smith said Trump spread a false narrative “that players are anti-military.”

Democratic Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania invited the Eagles to the U.S. Capitol and described the president’s decision as a “political stunt.”

The NFL last month announced a new policy requiring players to stand for the anthem if they are on the field, but also gave them the option of staying in the locker room for pregame ceremonies.

VOA’s Smita Nordwall contributed to this report.