The only place to start this story is with Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce — standing at the podium on top of the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, dressed in a gaudy green and purple Mummers outfit — leading a couple million Philadelphians in this song:
No one likes us
No one likes us
No one likes us, we don’t care
We’re from Philly, fucking Philly
No one likes us, we don’t care
His speech was, I say without hyperbole, the greatest thing that has happened in the history of Philadelphia. Not just because the Eagles were celebrating a Super Bowl victory over one of the most hated sports franchises in the country, but because it perfectly captured the essence of the city. Sports fans are deeply susceptible to the fantasy that the team they love somehow connects with their core values, even though most players are just professionals passing through town and doing a job. And yet I insist: This version of the Eagles is the most Philly team of my lifetime. This is worth noting right now because the president is picking a fight with them, and he’s losing.
Does it matter if Donald Trump is mad at the Eagles for not showing up to his flag celebration? It does not matter. Sarah Huckabee Sanders bemoaning the Eagles “playing politics” is just noise (as if an official visit to the White House is ever apolitical), and the Eagles understand this. By refusing to show up to the White House and watch the president mumble his way through “God Bless America” like a kid who hasn't prepped for the school pageant, they have embarrassed him and made enemies of lots of people who were never going to listen to or like them in the first place. The Eagles are unique, so far, in understanding how stupid all of this is. Angry tweets and passive-aggressive press releases cannot hurt them. Trump prevails in his public fights when his adversaries overestimate one or more of the following: his intelligence, his attention span, and/or his power to harm them.
The administration is brazenly corrupt and has enacted a number of policies that are legitimately dangerous to a lot of people, but players like Malcolm Jenkins and Chris Long — both well-respected veterans with secure roster spots — are beyond its reach. Nothing real is at stake unless they allow it to be at stake. They have reached the pinnacle of their profession and are more popular in Philadelphia than sweatpants. The only way they can lose is by engaging in an endless bad-faith debate with Trump on an issue he does not actually care about.
Some fans were frustrated with the team’s statement about the White House “disinvitation” because it didn’t directly address the White House’s claims, but I argue that the best choice they made was not acknowledging Trump at all. He and his biggest fans are obsessive about being the alpha and establishing dominance. In this dispute, the Eagles — who obviously are not intimidated by his bluster — are choosing not to engage with him. The cliché is that defense wins championships, but that only works if everyone is playing the same game. While Trump preens and shouts, the Eagles act as if they can’t hear him, because they have more important things to worry about.
Jenkins is redirecting the attention to his admirable political causes. Long understands that by donating his entire salary to education initiatives, he has the moral high ground without having to explain himself. Nick Foles and Carson Wentz — both devout Christians who fit the profile of a Trump voter exactly — have been conspicuously silent, but still supportive of their teammates. The roster includes a number of players who may very well have voted for Trump, or have families who support him, but the president has also been fighting against them and their livelihoods for a year. He calls them sons of bitches and he fantasizes about the days when it was easier for them to get brain injuries. He pressures the league to fine and even cut players he doesn’t personally like. Some of these players might be in his constituency but they know very well that he’s not their friend.
One of the cardinal sins for a football player is to be “a distraction.” That’s what got Colin Kaepernick blackballed from the league. To be a distraction is to be a detriment to focus and winning. “Distraction” is a catchall term that includes criticizing the quarterback, being arrested for domestic violence, protesting police brutality, and being openly gay. And yet, the Eagles won the Super Bowl, despite having all these socially conscious players. It was another reminder that “distraction” is a cowardly excuse most teams use to silence their players.
One reason this franchise is more tolerant of so-called distraction is that it’s used to it. The corps of beat writers covering the Philadelphia Eagles is massive, persistent, and ill-tempered. Former coach Chip Kelly used to complain that there were too many reporters covering the team and wondered why they couldn’t get by with only one or two instead of the roughly 30 who followed him every day. When the Eagles were scouting prospects for the 2016 draft, they subjected potential picks to mock press conferences to simulate the frenzy of the Philly spotlight. Philly Voice writer Jimmy Kempski spent more than a year badgering general manager Howie Roseman for details on the trade of an inconsequential player named Allen Barbre (he finally got them), though nobody else in the football world cared. The White House Correspondents’ Association could learn a few things from this group’s doggedness and attention to detail. So, who cares if a few extra national reporters show up to practice looking for quotes? Who’s afraid of another guy with a microphone asking tough questions? They’re used to it. That’s what they’ve been doing all along.
Based on the NFL’s embarrassing kowtowing to Trump on the national anthem issue, most of the league’s owners have no idea how to deal with the problem of the angry president, but Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie is uniquely suited to weathering this storm. With his Hollywood background, his doctoral dissertation on the role of women in film, his penchant for eco-friendly initiatives, and his extensive support of local charities, he is one of the most liberal owners in pro sports (though it’s worth noting here that he is much more a polite “let’s all get along” liberal than he is a rabble-rouser). More important, he has owned the team since 1994, and so he understands that a) the Eagles are more important to this city than everything else, and b) it is impossible for someone to be meaner to him than the fans will be.
It’s important to note here that Malcolm Jenkins is clearly smarter than the president. This isn’t a high bar to cross. But it’s worth emphasizing. It’s possible that Donald Trump has read at least one full book in his lifetime, although he may have read that book only because it was about himself. Sometimes you can accidentally absorb new information even when you’re just skimming for the mentions of yourself — anything is possible.
Even still, I don’t mean to say it’s easy for someone like Jenkins. He deals with a lot of nonsense on social media. He's going to be hated by a certain percentage of the population. He gets racist threats every day. But he has a cause that goes well beyond himself. The president is incapable of identifying anything in the world outside his own being.
This is about the 1,000th most important bad thing about the Trump presidency, but it feels good to see someone refuse to bow down to him. It feels even better to know the Eagles are outsmarting him at his own game. He needs the back-and-forth to sustain the outrage, but while he’s throwing a tantrum in the West Wing, the Eagles are going about their business, determined not to engage with him while still fighting for good. They know eventually he will move on to pick a new fight, with someone less media-savvy, someone easier to bully, and they will just keep winning football games and working to improve their communities.
You could write Kelce’s victory speech off as simply drunken revelry with no deeper meaning, but based on all the Eagles’ other actions, it’s clear the group truly believes it. In their encounter with Trump, they are saying very explicitly: You don’t like us? Fuck you — we don’t care.
Tom McAllister is the author of the novels How to Be Safe and The Young Widower's Handbook. You can find him on Twitter @t_mcallister.