What was supposed to be a high-profile image-buffing visit by a delegation of 13 NFL players to Israel ended up failing to draw enough players to field a team.
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In the end, only five of the players originally slated on the seven-day trip designed to make them “ambassadors of good will” for Israel ended up arriving to tour the Holy Land and seeing the sights, after a public relations fumble caused the majority to pull out.
The players who made the trip were Arizona Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell, Oakland Raiders defensive tackle Dan Williams, New Orleans Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker and Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Mychal Kendricks.
The decision of the other participants not to come on the trip took place after the visit was publicized by Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Minister Gilad Erdan on February 5, with a press release describing the trip as being part of an “intensive fight against the delegitimization and BDS campaigns against Israel, and part of this struggle includes hosting influencers and opinion-formers of international standing in different fields.” The football players would get “a balanced picture of Israel, the opposite from the false incitement campaign that is being waged against Israel around the world,” he said.
Move follows 'open letter' from Walker, Belafonte, Glover
The move was followed by the publishing of an “open letter” urging the players not to go, sponsored by pro-Palestinian activist groups and signed by high-profile activists and celebrities like Alice Walker, Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover. At the very beginning of the letter, Erdan’s words are cited as evidence that Israel was “aiming to use your fame to advance their own agenda: an agenda that comes at the expense of the Palestinian people.”
The decision by the other eight players not to travel to Israel was led by Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett, who signaled he was pulling out of the trip by tweeting a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr. and a statement expressing resentment at what he saw as a manipulation by Israel’s government and declaring he wouldn’t “be used in such a manner.”
Since Bennett’s post, the ministry that had unveiled the trip with great fanfare went silent. After promising various updates on the delegation, Revital Yakin-Karkovsky, executive director for communications and strategy in the ministry, told the Associated Press that it would not comment on the visit.
The Tourism Ministry and the nonprofit America’s Voices in Israel organization, which were also involved in the planning, have also distanced themselves.
According to ESPN, the players who canceled their participation include Bennett’s brother Martellus, a tight end for the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, along with Seattle Seahawks defensive end Cliff Avril, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Kenny Stills, San Francisco 49ers running back Carlos Hyde and Denver Broncos running back Justin Forsett, along with retired NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison.
The five players’ government-sponsored trip began Tuesday in the north of the country with a visit to Rambam Hospital, where the five players were given a tour and shown a presentation of a device developed by one of Rambam’s researchers that detects concussions in real time. Later, the players were set to include Yad Vashem and the Hebrew Israelite community in the southern city of Dimona.
Two of the visiting players, Jordan and Kendricks, have kept their fans updated on their travels by posting their adventures on social media.
AP contributed to this report.