It's Time to End the Tradition of Athletes Visiting the White House

When the Washington Nationals won the World Series, coverage of their victory was quickly overshadowed by reports of players refusing to participate in the traditional White House tour and photo op. Over the past few years it seems that whenever a sports team wins a championship, reports of players refusing to participate in the White House visit inevitably follow, and overshadow the event itself. I think it’s about time to put an end to this tradition. They can go to Disney World to celebrate, but in a nation that's increasingly divided every year, there’s simply no way to separate these photo-ops from politics, so why try?

The tradition of sports teams getting invited to the White House on an annual basis (with a few exceptions) started in the late 1980s under President Reagan. We’ve come to expect that the team that wins the Super Bowl, the World Series, or the Stanley Cup will get the usual White House visit and presidential photo op. The tradition of athletes snubbing the president of the United States is just as old.

In 1984, the Boston Celtics won the NBA Champions and were invited to the White House. But, MVP Larry Bird didn’t attend. “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me,’’ he said. In 1991, when George H.W. Bush was president, Michael Jordan skipped out on a White House visit with his teammates. When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 and 2007, Manny Ramirez skipped out both times.

Rest assured, athlete snubs are a bipartisan affair. In 1996, Mark Chmura of the Green Bay Packers didn’t join his Super Bowl-winning team to visit Bill Clinton. Golfer Tom Lehman also declined to meet Clinton

James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers skipped out on White House visits in 2006 and 2009—snubbing both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In 2013, Barack Obama invited members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins to the White House to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their undefeated season, and three players, citing their dislike of Obama, declined to attend. Patriots quarterback Tom Brady skipped out on White House visits with Obama and Trump.

Despite the bipartisan nature of these snubs, they’ve reached a fever pitch under President Trump. In 2017, Trump withdrew an invite for the Golden State Warriors after they decided not to attend. After winning the 2018 Super Bowl, the Philadelphia Eagles’ White House visit was canceled after only a small number of representatives planned to attend.

As someone who didn’t watch the World Cup, I wouldn’t even know who Megan Rapinoe was if she hadn’t made headlines for being a critic of Donald Trump. In fact, the entire victory of the U.S. Women’s Soccer Team was tainted by anti-Trumpism and gripes about equal pay. Their victory became a backdrop to political themes that dominated the discussion. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say people don’t watch sports for political commentary from athletes. Yet, it seems politics has become so infused with all aspects of our lives that we can’t escape it.

Enough is enough already. If we can’t separate the presidency from the person who currently occupies the office, then this tradition isn’t worth it. In 2013, after the three members of the 1972 Miami Dolphins team refused to meet with Barack Obama, MLB columnist Will Leitch wrote that athletes who refuse a White House visit “are idiots.”

“To get the opportunity to meet the President of the United States is something that millions of people dream of,” Leitch explained. “It is, for almost anyone who has ever done it, one of the legitimate peaks of their lives. It does not matter what the politics of the person in office are, or what yours are. To refuse an invitation to meet the President is an offense to those who will never have the chance.” He continued, “It shows disrespect for not just the office, but the country itself. When the President invites you to the White House, even if he is actively trying to pass a law that says you, personally, are no longer allowed to eat cake, you stop what you are doing and you go. And you certainly don't grandstand for absolutely zero effect.”

He certainly has a point, but the easier solution to asking people not to take a political stand they feel strongly about is to simply end the pointless tradition once and for all. Yes, it will be a sad reflection of how divided our country has become, but it would deny self-righteous athletes the opportunity to grandstand all together. It would be nice to think that people can table their politics and spend a few hours at the White House even if they disagree with the president on policy, but clearly, that’s not where we’re at as a country anymore. Perhaps we were never there, but the media has now made it impossible to separate the two because once players start grandstanding, that’s all the media seems to care about.

When the remainder of the Washington Nationals team visited the White House, the event was quickly overshadowed by catcher Kurt Suzuki donning a MAGA hat, which became the number one trend on Twitter, and made Suzuki the target of attacks on social media. Liberal analyst Bill Palmer said, “Kurt Suzuki should be banned from baseball” for what he did, and he was serious.

First basemen Ryan Zimmerman also got attacked for being gracious to Trump and offering him mild praise. Zimmerman told President Trump, “First of all, I’d like to thank you for having us here. This is an incredible honor that all of us will never forget. And we’d also like to thank you for keeping everyone here safe in our country, and continuing to make America the greatest country to live in the world.”

When politics has tainted every aspect of our culture, the best thing to do is to separate them whenever possible. It seems a small sacrifice to end the tradition of having sports teams and athletes visit the White House. Before long, the only thing people will remember about the Nationals’ visit to the White House is that some players chose not to go and one player wore a MAGA hat. The tradition shouldn’t be about who occupies the Oval Office, but the accomplishments of the victorious players. Sadly, that seems impossible anymore. Sports should be a fun escape, not another platform for dividing the country.

_____

Matt Margolis is the author of Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama's Legacy and the bestselling book The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis