The Super Bowl champion Patriots were scheduled to make the traditional White House visitWednesday, at a uniquely volatile moment in the brief-but-colorful history of White House championship visits. More than in any other year, every team visit now carries social, cultural and political weight into a happening that’s ordinarily as Mom-and-apple-pie as it gets.
As of Tuesday, six Patriots players had announced they're not going. Four of them — Martellus Bennett, LeGarrette Blount, Devin McCourty and Chris Long — have directly or indirectly given the presence of Donald Trump as president as their reason.
This comes three months after the Cubs made their post-World Series visit far earlier than customaryso they could meet with then-President Barack Obama before he left office, four days before Trump's inauguration.
And that follows the Cavaliers’ NBA championship visit in November. Before the trip, Richard Jefferson went on Snapchat to claimhis team would be "the last team to visit the White House."Afterward, Iman Shumpert told Complex magazine that, if the Cavs win this season, he will not go back.
In a period of activism and outspokenness by athletes unmatched since the 1960s, the White House during the Trump presidency has become a flashpoint. Several sports figures criticized Obama and skipped the honor during his two terms in office.But what has surrounded the Trump White House just in the five-plus months since his election blows that away.
PHOTOS: When sports meet politics
In at least one instance — albeit one that did not involve a White House visit — Trump has flipped the script and used his platform to strike out at an athlete, ex-49er Colin Kaepernick. Thus, there's reason to expect Trump to make mention of the boycotting players when the Patriots are there.
At the same time, a face-to-face meeting in the Rose Garden has not been necessary for prominent athletes to make their feelings known.
A handful of Under Armour athlete endorsers, led by Warriors star and two-time reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry, pushed back hard against CEO Kevin Plank earlier this year over, coincidentally, his meeting at the White House and subsequent praise of the new president.
The tradition of the championship visit, though, does create opportunities that don’t present themselves otherwise.
Again, it’s something that hasbecome routine only for the last three decades; starting with the Super Bowl-champion Giants in 1987.President RonaldReagan made it a habit for most professional champions, and his successors have expanded to college champions, Olympians and others.
For the record, according to Stewart McLaurin, president of the White House Historical Association, the first sports team visit, by a pair of baseball squads, was in 1865, with Andrew Johnson. The 1924 Washington Senators were invited to the White House by Calvin Coolidge a month before they wonthe World Series, and they visited again a year later on the eve of the 1925 Series, which they lost to the Pirates. The first Super Bowl champions to be honored were the Steelers, by Jimmy Carter in 1980.
Still, in all those visits over all those years and administrations, absences have been rare enough that many know the exceptions, and the reasons, by heart.
"Long Shot," a memoir by former Chicago Bull Craig Hodges published in January, relates how he brought an eight-page letter to the White House for the Bulls’ visit in 1991, asking President George H.W. Bush for "a comprehensive plan for change"on racial and economic issues.
"As I was raised to believe that writing political representatives was a normal and healthy part of living in a democracy,"Hodges wrote in his book, "I left the White House feeling like I'd just aced Civics 101."
Teammate Michael Jordan skipped that visit, giving a very apolitical reason (playing golf) that Hodges disputed in the book (a private expletive about Bush, followed by, “I didn’t vote for him").
Back in 1984, Larry Bird chose not to attend after the Celtics’ title andnever gave a specific reason, but he did give an immortal comment about it: "If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me."
More recently, in 2013, Ravens center Matt Birk cited Obama when he skipped the Super Bowl champions visit. In 2011, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas boycotted on political grounds, although he insisted (not very convincingly) that his objection was not to Obama.
Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta notably skipped in January; he gave family obligations as his reason, but he had also tweeted a pro-Trump reaction to the election.
When the 1985 Bears Super Bowl team made up for itscanceled visit (in deference to the 1986 space shuttle explosion two days after that Super Bowl) in 2011, Hall of Famer Dan Hampton declined, saying, "I'm not a fan of the guy in the White House."
Head coach Mike Ditka joined the team that day.But last year, some five years later, he made it clear that he also was not a fan: "Obama’s the worst president we've ever had."
One other long-past champion, the 1972 Dolphins, made their visit in 2013 … and three players stayed away, specifically pointing to their objection to Obama.
And, as has been noted frequently since the current Patriots made their boycott known, Tom Brady was a no-show in 2015. His reaction to his teammates skipping this visit was textbook-bland: "Everybody has their own choice."He said it was a scheduling conflict stemming from a late decision on the date.
Of course, Brady has made no secret of his personal friendship with Trump, but he has spent more than a year soft-pedaling it publicly. Nevertheless, in a speech the day before the election, Trump thanked Brady and coach Bill Belichick for their support. Owner Robert Kraft is close enough to Trump that he recently rode on Air Force One with the president.
That’s the team that arrives — or doesn’t — at the White House Wednesday. It turns up the already-existing spotlight on the increase in players’ activism. That heat will be felt by the next several teams to make the trip … if they do. It hasbecome a staple to ask not when they will visit the White House, but if.
The North Carolina men and the South Carolina women won NCAA basketball titles earlier this month. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said the team would go if invited: "It's what national champions do."Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who made the trip after the 2009 title and has had sharp words for Trump before, said after their win, "Let me think on it … I don’t know that we're going to get invited."
Clemson’s national championship football team is reportedly working out a date to visit. Head coach Dabo Swinney said last week, "If somebody doesn’t want to go, don’t go, but I’m going."
Meanwhile, the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs are underway. The Penguins made their trip last October, just before the new season began and a month before the election.
The Cavaliers and Warriors are the favorites to win in the NBA — and if either takes it, there’s no reason to believe the once-tame White House visit flame won't be lit again.