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The NFL thought it had a protest compromise. Then Trump restarted a culture war

President Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles from a White House visit after many players decided not to go. The president’s move again stokes a bitter cultural battle over the national anthem and the right of NFL players to protest, despite the fact that none of the Eagles took a knee during the last season. Amna Nawaz talks with Howard Bryant, author of “The Heritage.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The president is engaging again in a cultural battle with professional football players over the national anthem and the right of players to protest.

    As Amna Nawaz reports, this time, the stakes involve the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles, who had been invited to a celebration at the White House, and a decision by Mr. Trump to disinvite the entire team after many players decided not to go.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    These are some of the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles the president was planning to meet at the White House today, a meeting that's become almost as much a tradition as the victory parade itself.

    But President Trump canceled that meeting, saying too many players opted out at the last minute, and that they disagreed with his insistence on standing during the national anthem. In fact, none of the Eagles players took a knee during the anthem last season.

    Today, the White House hosted what they called a celebration of America instead. Flanked by the United States Army Chorus, the president spoke briefly.

  • President Donald Trump:

    So, we stand together for freedom. We stand together for patriotism. This is a beautiful, big celebration. Actually, to be honest, it is even bigger than we had anticipated.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The president has long railed against players who take a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality and social injustice. The issue has become a common rallying cry.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Get that son of a (EXPLETIVE DELETED) off the field right now. Out. He's fired. He's fired!

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Last month, the NFL bent to the pressure, announcing a new policy requiring players to stand for the anthem or remain in the locker room. The league had hoped it found a compromise.

    But a number of Eagles players opted out of the White House visit. Several criticized the president's cancellation and statement.

    Wide receiver Torrey Smith, who spent last year with the Eagles and is now with the Carolina Panthers, tweeted, "No one refused to go simply because Trump insists folks stand for the anthem. The president continues to spread the false narrative that players are anti-military."

    The battle continued throughout the day. Two NBA superstars, LeBron James and Stephen Curry, said neither of their teams would visit the White House after one of them wins the current NBA championship.

    Howard Bryant has been watching all of this closely. His new book is called "The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism."

    He's a columnist for ESPN and a commentator for NPR, and joins us this evening in Hartford, Connecticut.

    Howard, thanks so much for making the time.

    I want to begin by asking you about that decision made by the league last month. They thought they had an answer here, right, a way to balance the players' protests with criticism from the president.

    What do the events of the last 24 hours tell you about that?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, I think what the events have told me, that this is precisely what this collision between this history of African-American athletes exerting their — using their platform for social injustice, against social injustice, colliding with a president who has really engaged in a culture war.

    This culture war started back in September, and during the clip that you showed. And the players — the players believed in the game. The players believed, with ownership, they created a compromise. They made this $90 million partnership to fight social injustice.

    And then the league pretty much turned on them, and then now they see a president ramping up the same culture war where the players are the red meat for this base.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you think that that decision makes any difference? Did it help or hurt? Will it continue to create problems?

  • Howard Bryant:

    For whom?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The NFL owners' decision.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, absolutely. The NFL…

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes.

  • Howard Bryant:

    No, the owners have even bigger problems than they could have imagined before, because I think that everybody, in December, when they made this deal, they believed that the relationship had been — that they were — they had reached a compromise, that they felt this was done, that this was not going to be an issue.

    Now we're going to start next season wondering if the players are going to be upset with ownership. Are they going to pull some wildcat strike of demonstration during the games? Are they going to protest in another way? How is this going to play out?

    I think the ownership and the players believed that this issue had been put to rest. And now it's just getting started.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, let me ask you just about the events of the last day now.

    This one single event, just through the lens of what's happened over the last day, I can't imagine a single White House that wouldn't have been offended if most of the team had said, you know what, we're not coming. We will send a player. We will send a coach. We will send out mascot, but that's.

    Can you really blame them for canceling the event?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, absolutely, I think you can blame them, because, number one, this is something that was created by them.

    I could see if they — if the Philadelphia Eagles had said that we were not going to come to the White House regardless. They didn't say that. This is something that this president has started. It's not as though players doesn't didn't have issues with presidents before.

    Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins didn't go to the Obama White House when the Boston Bruins beat Vancouver in the Stanley Cup eight years ago.

    I think what it is, is that he started this war with the players. He questioned their patriotism. This is one of the things that the book is about. Who gets to be the patriot? He questioned their citizenship. He questioned their patriotism. He said they didn't belong in the country.

    And now the players are responding in kind. And I think that if — had that not started, I think that you have a better relationship. It's one thing for the players to say, OK, well, we disagree with your politics. It's another to have your patriotism, to have your citizenship, to have your identity as an American questioned, and this is their way of saying, we don't like that.

    They fight back.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard, there are a lot of folks out there who will say, you know what, we're glad that the president said something. This is something we have been thinking and feeling all along. He is putting out there what we have believed.

    And the polling shows that the country is really split on that, on whether players should be allowed to protest during the anthem or not.

    What do you make of that? What would you say to them?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, I would say to them that this is something very disturbing, if we understand what this country is supposed to be about.

    One of the things in the book that I enjoy very much is listening to the veterans talk about the — supposedly, we're talking about veterans here or sticking up for veterans. So many of the veterans that I spoke to said that they — they appreciate what the players are doing, because this is one of the reasons why they fight.

    Even if they disagree with the way the players are handling themselves, they feel that this is not the area to weaponize players — to weaponize the flag against players. This is not something that they want to see in their sports.

    And I think that the players themselves also recognize that, if we're going to walk the walk in terms of what are our ideals stand for, the ideals of the American flag is not to be in fealty to the military. It's to the ideals of the country itself.

    And this all runs — it flies in the face of that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard, very quickly, before I let you go. Are we going to continue to see protests in this upcoming season?

  • Howard Bryant:

    Well, I think what you're going to see first is, you're going to see the owners and the players get together on this and they're going to have to say, look, are you backing us, players to owners?

    And if the players don't feel that the owners are going to back them against a hostile president, I think that on the field next season you could see all kinds of different protests that you hadn't anticipated, because I think both sides thought this issue was over, and the president reopened it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Howard Bryant, thanks for your time.

  • Howard Bryant:

    Thank you.

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