The routine is familiar. The president makes a few bad jokes. The championship-winning team presents the leader of the free world with a personalized jersey. Everyone smiles for the cameras.
Nothing political about that, right?
In a divided nation, everything is political.
While presidents have been snubbed before, six players from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots took it to another level by preemptively turning down an expected invitation from President Trump.
Rest assured, they won’t be the last to mix sports and politics.
“The balance of power in professional sports now rests more with the performers than the owners,” said Stephen Mosher, a professor of sports management and media at Ithaca College. “Without a labor force, (Patriots owner) Robert Kraft has nothing but an empty stadium. He has to let his employees make these political statements if he wants to win. He has to. There’s too many different political views held by players in the National Football League.
“Actually,” Mosher added, “I think it’s quite refreshing.”
The Patriots were part of the political discourse even before they dramatically rallied from 25 points down to beat the Atlanta Falcons in the first Super Bowl to go to overtime.
Kraft is a friend of the 45th president, and quarterback Tom Brady drew plenty of scrutiny when one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” caps was spotted in his locker at the start of the contentious presidential campaign.
Then, with the Patriots still in the midst of their Super Bowl celebration, tight end Martellus Bennett made it clear he had no intention of visiting Trump’s White House.
Five teammates — defensive back Devin McCourty, running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive end Chris Long, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch — quickly followed suit. Most pinned their decision on political differences with the Republican administration.
Significant, to be sure.
But nothing new.
Snubbing the White House
Since the tradition of inviting sports champions to the nation’s most famous home really began to take off under President Reagan, some two dozen athletes have turned down the opportunity.
That list includes Brady, who didn’t attend a 2015 celebration because of what the quarterback insisted was a “family commitment” but others speculated was because of some unflattering comments a spokesman for President Obama made about the Deflategate scandal.
For some, a trip to the White House was no big deal.
Larry Bird shrugged off an invitation from Reagan after the Boston Celtics won an NBA title, crabbily explaining, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.” After winning one of his six championships, Michael Jordan said he preferred to spend time with his family rather than hang with President George H.W. Bush. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned down not one, but two chances to visit the White House, pointing out — quite correctly — that he wouldn’t have gotten either of those invitations if his team had lost the Super Bowl.
Others cited political differences with those in power in declining.
Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas declined to join the 2011 Stanley Cup champions on their White House visit, writing on social media that the government “has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.”
Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk passed on a chance to meet with Obama because of the president’s support of Planned Parenthood. Golfer Tom Lehman was even more outspoken when rebuffing a president, calling Bill Clinton “a draft-dodging baby killer.”
How it all started
In 1865, not long after the end of the Civil War and before professional baseball was even a thing, President Andrew Johnson met with a pair of amateur teams, the Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics, according to the White House Historical Association. Given the tumultuous term he would serve after inheriting the office from Abraham Lincoln, Johnson probably figured he could use all the positive publicity he could get.
President Calvin Coolidge invited the hometown Senators for a visit after their dramatic seven-game victory in the 1924 World Series, which proved to be a prudent move. Washington may be first in war and first in peace, but it’s still stuck on that one Series title.
More teams would visit the White House in the years to come, but Mosher points to Richard Nixon as the first president who really pushed for a connection to athletes of all stripes, with some speculating that it was a way to make up for his failed football dreams. Most notably, he began the practice of placing congratulatory phone calls right to the locker room while teams were in the midst of their championship celebrations.
Reagan, who knew how to work the camera far better than Nixon, stepped up the game by using the White House as a backdrop for well-choreographed photo ops with champions from a wide range of sports. While these appearances were passed off as nothing more than a chance to dole out some well-deserved kudos while escaping the divisive issues of the day, the Gipper surely knew they had everything to do with politics.
“Basking in the reflective glory” of a championship team, as Mosher puts it, never hurts when election time rolls around. “They keep telling us over and over again that sports and politics don’t mix,” he said. “But that’s simply not the case.”
Colin Kaepernick’s season-long protest against police brutality and abuses in the justice system seems to have sparked a new activism among professional athletes.
The quarterback’s simple act of kneeling during the national anthem “is very different than what I’ve studied in the past,” Mosher said. “He did it so politely, with so much respect. He wasn’t calling attention to himself. The story only became a story when people noticed it. That stood in stark contrast to the ranting and raving that the political campaign was putting in front of the American public.”
In Week 1 of the NFL season, Bennett raised his fist in a show of support.
Now that the season is over, he’s plunging into another fiery issue.
Given the divided state of the nation, more athletes are sure to follow.
No matter who’s in the White House.