Fewer than 10 Philadelphia Eagles had reportedly accepted an invitation to visit the White House before President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the meeting with the Super Bowl champions the day before the event.
ESPN reported that "five or fewer" of the players on the team of more than 90 had planned to go. Trump has since replaced the event with a "celebration of America."
It's unclear what role the attendance played in Trump canceling the event — he at times said it was over a dispute about players in the locker room or kneeling during the national anthem, even though no Eagles kneeled last year. Trump is notoriously obsessed with crowd size and choreographed appearances with sports celebrities and heroes.
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Tuesday the fact that so few players planned to attend constituted a "political stunt," while dodging questions about the relevance of the national anthem.
"The Eagles are the ones that tried to change their commitment at the 11th hour, and the president frankly thinks that the fans deserve better than that," she said at a briefing Tuesday. "Therefore, we changed the ceremony to focus on celebrating our great country."
When asked whether the president knows that the players who kneel are protesting officer-involved shootings, Sanders repeated that the president does not believe the dispute is over a question of free speech, but about patriotism.
"The president doesn't think this is an issue of free speech," she said. "He thinks it's about respecting the men and women of our military, it's about respecting our national anthem and standing out of pride for that."
The White House, Eagles players, Philadelphia's mayor, and the union that represents NFL players spent Tuesday blasting out their side of the controversy.
“Many mayors have stood up in this country against this tyrant," Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said on CBS. "He is trying to turn this country into a dictatorship by ignoring the courts...this will all come to a conclusion and won't be a good ending for him."
Sanders said that on May 31, the team said 81 people — players, coaches, and staff — were going to attend and that Secret Service cleared them.
On Friday, Sanders said, "citing the fact that many players would not be in attendance, the team contacted the White House again, and attempted to reschedule the event" to a day while Trump was in Singapore.
"Unfortunately, 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, despite planning to be in D.C. today. In other words, the vast majority of the Eagles team decided to abandon their fans," Sanders said in a statement. "Upon learning these facts, the President decided to change the event so that it would be a celebration of the American flag."
Politico reported that the White House believed the team attempted to publicly humiliate the president by sending only two or three players, the owner, and the mascot.
Malcolm Jenkins, an Eagles safety who raised his fist during the anthem last season, later tweeted that "It takes empathy and time to listen to other's experiences that may be different than your own."
He listed al the charitable works the players and team have done, and said, "no one elected us to do this. We do it because we love this country and our communities...we are fighting for racial and social equality."
"Instead, the decision was made to lie, and paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag, and anti-military," he wrote.
Earlier in the morning, Trump made sure the controversy was going at full steam with a series of tweets.
The NFLPA, a union that represents players, said that they were "disappointed in the decision," and that "NFL players love their country, support our troops, give back to their communities and strive to make America a better place."
Several player-led community events were canceled as a result of the change in plans, the union added.
Jenkins, for instance, had planned to visit a school in the DC area, the NFL Network reported. Jenkins hadn't planned to go to the White House, but he would have traveled to the capital with the team.
Trump also implied that part of the reason for the cancellation was that Eagles players had stayed in the locker room for the playing of the anthem, which he called "as disrespectful to our country as kneeling."
But some players and reporters pointed out that no Eagles players had kneeled or stayed in the locker rooms last season.
Meanwhile, on Monday morning, Fox News played footage of Eagles players praying on the field — implying they had been kneeling during the anthem. The network later corrected the report and the show's executive producer apologized.
Pennsylvania House Republican Ryan Costello tweeted that the incident was a "depressing commentary on our political culture, very deflating to me."
NBA champion LeBron James, of the Cleveland Cavaliers, said Tuesday that neither of the teams in the NBA Finals would be going to the White House, regardless of who wins.
"No one wants an invite anyway," he told San Francisco Chronicle reporter Connor Letourneau. "It won't be Golden State or Cleveland going."
BuzzFeed News has reached out to the Eagles and will update with any comment.