Athletes have to figure out if their victory lap includes the White House

For championship sports teams, an invite from the White House used to be a slam dunk. Why wouldn't you leap at the ch...

Posted: Feb. 8, 2018 10:53 AM
Updated: Feb. 8, 2018 8:02 PM

For championship sports teams, an invite from the White House used to be a slam dunk. Why wouldn't you leap at the chance to visit the most famous home in the country and banter with the president?

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But since last year, when President Trump began feuding with athletes over national anthem protests and other issues, the answer hasn't been so simple.

The tradition dates back at least to the '60s, although President Reagan in the '80s was the first to make it a regular occurrence.

Some players have skipped the trip, citing scheduling conflicts. The Boston Celtics' Larry Bird made news when he opted out in 1984, saying, "If (Reagan) wants to see me, he knows where to find me." In 1991 Michael Jordan played golf instead of rubbing elbows with President George H. W. Bush. And in 2017 Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta skipped a White House visit with President Obama, fueling speculation that his decision was political (he denied it).

Fast forward to now.

Trump had already outraged some NFL players, about 70% of whom are black, when he appeared to suggest a moral equivalency between white supremacists and those who opposed them last August in Charlottesville, Virginia. Then he inserted himself into the sports world, launching Twitter attacks on the NFL over players who took a knee during the national anthem to protest racial injustice.

Some reporters now are asking players, "Are you going to the White House?" mere minutes after they've won a championship. And several members of the Philadelphia Eagles, fresh off their Super Bowl victory, have already said they won't be attending.

Here's a look at how some major sports teams have responded to White House invites since Trump became President.

The NFL

Even before the Philadelphia Eagles faced-off against the New England Patriots in Sunday's Super Bowl, Eagles players Torrey Smith and Chris Long said in interviews that they would skip a potential White House visit.

And the morning after the Eagles' historic win, safety Malcolm Jenkins, who has been an outspoken critic of Trump, confirmed to CNN's "New Day" that he also won't attend.

It's a d-j- vu moment.

A week before last year's Super Bowl, New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, an outspoken supporter of the "Black Lives Matter" movement, told reporters he would "most likely" not attend and solidified his decision to skip the White House trip mere hours after the Patriots' big win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty told Time.com the morning after the game that he would also skip, citing his opposition to Trump.

From there a domino effect began. The question haunted Patriots players for months, particularly star quarterback Tom Brady, who has long been a "friend" and a golfing partner of Trump.

Ultimately, Patriots reporter Dan Roche said only 34 players visited with Trump, compared to about 50 players who attended in 2015 when Obama was in office.

Brady did not attend, citing "family matters." The Boston Herald reported at the time that he was spending time with his sick mother.

The NBA

After the Golden State Warriors defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers last June, Warriors star Steph Curry found himself at the center of a Twitter feud with the President.

Outraged by Trump's comments that NFL owners should fire players who take a knee during the anthem to protest racism, Curry joined a chorus of athletes who criticized the President.

"My views haven't changed at all. I don't know if anybody's changed. But that's where I stand right now," he told reporters. "I don't want to go (to the White House)."

Trump, seemingly hurt, then withdrew the invitation to the entire team.

"Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!" he tweeted.

Then NBA star LeBron James piled on.

"U bum @StephenCurry30 already said he ain't going! So therefore ain't no invite. Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!" the Cavaliers star tweeted.

Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who has been a vocal critic of Trump, said that his team had not decided whether they would attend but was "not surprised" that Trump uninvited them.

"He was going to break up with us before we could break up with him," Kerr said.

Major League Baseball

Right after the Houston Astros won the World Series in November, manager A.J. Hinch said the team wouldn't say whether they would accept an invitation from Trump because they didn't want to "polarize this moment."

But in January the Astros announced that they accepted.

"This is a tradition and an honor. For many people, this might be their only time to ever be invited to the White House," Astros president of business operations Reid Ryan told the Houston Chronicle. "And as the representatives of baseball and the World Series champs, when the White House calls and invites you to come up, it's something that as an organization we felt both a responsibility and an obligation to be part of."

The Astros are now scheduled to visit D.C. sometime during spring training. But outfielder Carlos Beltran, who retired from baseball after the season, says he's not going because he's disappointed in the US government's response to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

The NHL

The Pittsburgh Penguins, after winning the Stanley Cup in June, visited Trump at the White House in October.

"Nobody's choosing a side. Nobody's taking a stand," said head coach Mike Sullivan at the time. "We are simply honoring our championship and the accomplishments of this group of players."

College sports

Months before the Alabama Crimson Tide defeated the Georgia Bulldogs in the college football playoff national championship in January, a social change organization circulated a petition urging coach Nick Saban to decline a White House invite.

But AL.com reported Tuesday that Trump extended an invite to Saban and the team, and that Alabama will make the trip. The Crimson Tide visited the White House four times during Obama's administration.

Last year's college football champs, the Clemson Tigers, celebrated their 2017 title at the White House in June, where they were honored by Trump.

When asked beforehand if any of his players would skip the visit, Coach Dabo Swinney said he would have "no problem" if they did but had not heard any complaints.

The North Carolina Tar Heels, who won the men's NCAA basketball championship last year, did not visit the White House but said it had nothing to do with Trump.

"We couldn't find a date that worked for both parties," team spokesman Steve Kirschner said. "We tried about eight or nine dates ... we would have liked to have gone, but not going."

But the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, last year's champs in women's college hoops, took a somewhat different stance. Coach Dawn Staley declined Trump's invite, saying in November that "all of our focus is on the season ahead. The only invitation we are thinking about is to the 2018 NCAA Tournament."

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