Maybe it’s time to stop inviting sports teams to the White House. It’s not a mandate. It’s not a law. And when the mere idea of it launches a slew of political statements, it sure doesn’t sound like an honor.
The New England Patriots, fresh off a Super Bowl win, spent last week partying, parading — and announcing how certain members will not be going to the White House to be congratulated.
“I don’t feel accepted in the White House,” safety Devin McCourty texted to Time.
“I don’t feel welcome in that house,” running back LeGarrette Blount told NFL host Rich Eisen.
Four other Patriots — as of this writing — said they would not attend. One of them, Dont’a Hightower, who visited when he was a college player, told ESPN: “Been there, done that.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I’m throwing a dinner party and a chunk of my guests make a point of telling people why they’re not coming, maybe the dinner party isn’t such a great idea.
Yes, the tradition of teams visiting the White House dates back to 1865, when Andrew Johnson invited the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals. But it was an on-off thing for more than a century, until Ronald Reagan in the 1980s began inviting everybody.
After that, teams from football to hockey to women’s soccer seemed to enjoy the tradition. Photos were taken. A jersey with the president’s name was handed over. Most Americans said, “That’s nice,” and went about their business.
Respect and rudeness
But these days, few people just go about their business. Not when a statement can be made. So even though a dated invitation has yet to be made, some Patriots felt compelled to tell their fans how repugnant the idea was to them.
It is surely their right to do so as Americans.
It is also rude.
No one is asking them to endorse a candidate. And taking a photo with your nation’s elected leader doesn’t mean you surrender your right to disagree with every single thing he does. That’s the beauty of America. In fact, the visit may give you a rare chance to express your views to the leader himself.
How many photos or congratulations have those players accepted from corporations that exploit workers, CEOs who practice unfair hiring practices, TV hosts who they privately don’t like, etc.? All NFL teams have mandatory events, from charity to corporate, where no excuses for absence are accepted. It’s not like players don’t have to bite their tongue sometimes.
Besides, since most presidential elections are about 50-50, I’m guessing half the athletes who have visited the White House over the years didn’t vote for the man occupying it. So what? You can respect the office. The tradition. The reverence of our flawed but still-beautiful democratic system.
But we live in a world where declaring is easier than doing, and Twitter posts pass for social action. So turning down an invitation — by tweeting or doing an interview — gets you celebrated. You don’t need to actually do anything to make the country better. You don’t even need to leave the couch.
If you can’t play nice…
Now, to be sure, players have missed these photo-ops before. Tom Brady, for one, missed the last Patriots visit in 2015, citing a previous commitment. Tim Thomas, a goalie with the Boston Bruins, opted out in 2011 because he felt the government was out of control. Matt Birk, of the Baltimore Ravens, a practicing Catholic, skipped a 2013 visit because he disagreed with President Barack Obama’s endorsement of Planned Parenthood.
But even Birk back then said, “I have great respect for the office of the presidency.” These days, that doesn’t seem to matter. I know readers who hate President Donald Trump will scream that if he doesn’t respect the office, why should the athletes? And since only the present seems to matter anymore, we’ll forget that previous presidents, from both parties, have done awful things while serving in the White House — and had their pictures taken with all kinds of cultural heroes.
Which is why perhaps it’s better to drop this tradition altogether. Let’s face it: Presidents mostly use it to boost their popularity. Teams use it to boost their legacy. It started as a nicety, but playing nice is not very fashionable these days.
Besides, if you were sitting in the White House and enough players were publicly telling you to stuff your invitation, you might end up saying, “What invitation?”
Given the country today, don’t be surprised if that happens.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at mitchalbom.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/mitch-albom.