WILKES-BARRE — Ron Marrero was wearing his heart on his sleeve Tuesday afternoon.
The lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan was strolling Public Square sporting a midnight green team jacket, but the Ashley resident wasn’t in any mood to celebrate.
“Every team that’s won a championship has been invited to the White House,” Marrero, 56, said. “What makes the Eagles any different?”
Around the time Marrero chatted on the streets of Wilkes-Barre, his beloved Super Bowl-champion birds should have been shaking hands with President Donald Trump.
Only they weren’t, after Trump abruptly said Monday that the Eagles had been dis-invited, leaving the team, the president and many Americans at odds over the incident.
Trump announced the news in a statement, apparently after learning that only a handful of players were planning to turn up.
In his statement, Trump tied his decision to the dispute over players who have taken a knee during the national anthem to protest racism and police brutality. However, Eagles players never knelt during the “Star-Spangled Banner,” throughout the 2017 season and their march to the Super Bowl.
No one connected with the team said the players’ reluctance to attend had anything to do with the national anthem, the Associated Press reported.
Instead of meeting the team, the president held a short “patriotic celebration.”
“We love our country, we respect our flag and we always proudly stand for the national anthem,” Trump said.
Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins, who had planned to skip the ceremony “to avoid being used as any kind of pawn,” blasted the White House’s decision as a lie intended to “paint the picture that these players are anti-America, anti-flag and anti-military.”
The anthem protests began in 2016, when San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began silently kneeling on the sidelines during the anthem to raise awareness around racism and the killing of black men by police.
At a rally last September, Trump suggested NFL owners fire “son of a bitch” players who “disrespect” the flag by kneeling.
Last month, the NFL announced a new policy that requires players to stand if they’re on the field during the national anthem or else stay in the locker room. Several Eagles players have been vocal critics of the policy, while the team’s owner, Jeffrey Lurie, has been a Trump critic, the AP pointed out.
Whatever the reason for the dis-invitation, many Americans were left angry and divided about the White House incident, as conversation around the bar at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 283 in Kingston showed Tuesday.
“People have made the implication that Trump is disrespecting the Eagles, but it’s really the other way around,” said retired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Jean Bailey-Solomon, 70, adding that the “media is part of the problem.”
“Nobody respects the veterans,” husband Bob Solomon chimed in.
“Respect the freedom we have,” he added. “If it weren’t for the veterans, the players wouldn’t be able to protest.”
But Swoyersville native Bernie Laskowski, an Eagles fan who was also at the VFW, came to the team’s defense — and had his critique of the media.
Fox News on Tuesday aired a photo of Eagles players kneeling, when they were actually praying. No member of the Eagles took a knee during the anthem protests last season.
“Everyone is on the Eagles for not showing up, but none of their players knelt at all this season.” Laskowski, 69, said.
Fox News has since issued an apology.
“I just can’t understand why Trump wouldn’t accept whatever number of Eagles players that were going to show up.”
Pennsylvania in focus
The White House crowd of roughly 1,000, mostly dressed in business suits, was light on Pennsylvanians and heavy on administration and GOP Party officials. Several in attendance blamed the players, not the president, for torpedoing the Eagles event, the AP reported.
U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta (R-Hazleton), attended the White House ceremony, “representing the proud Pennsylvanians who stand for our flag.”
Incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Scranton), facing Barletta in his bid for reelection this fall, tweeted he would be “skipping this political stunt at the White House” and invited the Eagles on a tour of the U.S. Capitol instead.
Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, also a Democrat, invited them back to City Hall for a celebration.
That resonated with Marrero back in Wilkes-Barre.
“Casey and Kenney did the right thing,” he said. “It’s not every day you get to celebrate a franchise’s first championship.”
Trump later took to Twitter to mention the list of teams that have visited him in his two year tenure in the White House including Pennsylvania’s own Pittsburgh Penguins.
Joe Rodano, 35, of Wilkes-Barre, saw the new policy and the president’s views as flashpoints.
“If the NFL had not passed their recent decision on how to handle the anthem protests going forward before the Eagles visit to the White House, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now,” said Rodano, who founded an Eagles fan group known as the NEPA Bird Gang.
His group tailgates and attends every Eagles home game. When they are not at the games they can be seen watching the games at Rodano’s, his namesake bar and restaurant on Public Square.
“The NFL’s decision gave Trump a reason to cancel the visit,” Rodano added. “It’s an honor and a privilege to be able to go to the White House but Trump seems to make it about him.”
“I just want to get back to playing football,” Rodano said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.