It’s a time-honored tradition for football champions to visit the White House after winning the Super Bowl. It places the all-American cherry on top for a sport that embraces the hyper-masculinity of free-flowing beer, curvaceous cheerleaders and raucous post-victory celebrations.
But a couple days after the Philadelphia Eagles, a team renowned for its losses, won the national championship, wide receiver Torrey Smith went on live TV and said he would not visit Trump in the White House.
“If I told you that I was invited to a party by an individual I believe is sexist or has no respect for women, or I told you that this individual has said offensive things towards minority groups…You would understand why I wouldn’t want to go to that party,” he told Don Lemon on CNN. “Why is it any different when the person has the title of president of the United States?”
Smith’s decision is inherently political, but it doesn’t just have to do with opinions or allegiances. It involves his responsibility as an athlete to his team, and by extension, his fans and the city of Philly.
While Super Bowl champions visiting the president at the White House is indeed a tradition, it’s an invented one. The first White House visit was in 1980, when the Steelers visited Jimmy Carter in the midst of the Iran hostage crisis. The optics of the visit strengthened Carter’s image on both domestic and international fronts, and Ronald Reagan later institutionalized these visits as commonplace.
But traditions are meant to be broken. And Philadelphia, the city that the Eagles represent, testifies to that ages-long American tradition of breaking traditions.
I went to the Eagles parade yesterday. Though I grew up in Philadelphia, this was the first time I had seen the entire city in the throes of happiness. Transit lines and highways were blocked off. Teeming masses of people crowded the roads in what wasn’t a protest. I saw people of all backgrounds and colors celebrating the win. A group blasted Meek Mill’s “Dreams and Nightmares” in front of City Hall and danced, the anthem all the more poignant after Mill was sentenced to two to four years in prison for violating parole, and which the Eagles played when they ran onto the field during the Super Bowl. A city normally so divided between race and class lines was united in a brief rhapsody of joy.
The parade was a rare but well-deserved beacon of light for the poorest big city in America, better known for its high crime rates and mass incarceration—and for being ranked the angriest city in the country by Thrillist in 2016. But Philadelphia is home.
I strike people as an unlikely Eagles fan, and perhaps I am. I’m Pakistani-American, bookish and, in the gendered logic of American stereotype, not the kind of girl who would watch a football game.
If several Eagles players decide to boycott the White House and refuse to meet with Trump, they aren’t just making a personal decision as athletes. They’re representing the city that loves them.
But my connection to the Eagles is generational, if not primordial. My father became a football fan when he first immigrated to West Philadelphia in the ‘90s. He could no longer watch cricket, that postcolonial holdover that teams from the West Indies and South Asia had reclaimed against Great Britain.
It wasn’t the first time he’d lost a sport. He’d played field hockey with a passion when he was a teenager, back when the Pakistani team were world champions in the sport. But he’d lost the ability to play after a bone infection took hold of his leg and left him with a permanent half-limp, which he disguised with a smile and a refusal to complain about his circumstances.
Football had been the only sport in America that he could access. As a medical student doing his residency, he worked 120 hours a week, but was paid a meager monthly stipend of $1600. While baseball and basketball had an exceeding amount of games per season for each team, football had only 16. It was manageable with his busy schedule, and it became a lifelong stamp on his decision to stay in this country even after he finished his residency.
I remember from childhood my father religiously tuning into games and hosting football parties, which other Pakistani-American friends would attend, sometimes decked in full South Asian regalia if it fell on the same day as Eid or crossed with our more traditional events. I chanted and sang the victory song with the same pitch as any other kid born and raised in America. And I was as disillusioned as the people around me when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl in 2005. This win, then, almost felt like coming to terms with oneself.
While some of the Eagles players’ refusal to go to the White House might not jive with the conservative-minded NFL, it’s not surprising coming from athletes who represent a city with Eagles fans like my father. Philadelphia is overrun with immigrants from all countries, who in spite of their foreignness nonetheless absorbed into the city fold and adopted Philly accents and attitude.
It’s also a black city. Philadelphia is 44 percent African American, and a hub of black arts, culture and resistance. The first continuously published African American newspaper, The Philadelphia Tribune, found its home in Philadelphia, and one of W. E. B. DuBois’ earliest works was a sociological study called The Philadelphia Negro. Philly hip-hop and R&B is an ongoing ballad to the city, producing acts such as Eve, The Roots, Jazmine Sullivan, Santigold and, of course, Meek Mill. In fact, running back LeGarrette Blount is a grandson of Sun Ra, the legendary jazz composer who paved the way for Afrofuturism and bought a house in Philadelphia that became the headquarters of his band until his death.
And then, there’s the case of being Muslim in Philly. Most places in America still struggle to deal with their Muslim populations. In Philly, it is what it is. The city has the highest proportions of Muslims in any city in America. As Suhaib Webb once put it, “Philly is amazing because a woman can drive a bus while wearing niqab. And she’ll just be driving it.”
If several Eagles players decide to boycott the White House and refuse to meet with Trump, they aren’t just making a personal decision as athletes. They’re representing the city that loves them, and for which they’ve played hard. It just goes to show football isn’t a spectacle to entertain the populace or an expression of American nationalism, but the reflection of the people who watch it and make it theirs.