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White House visits no longer what they were

by | Feb 12, 2017 | Detroit Free Press, Comment | 6 comments

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: malbom@freepress.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.

6 Comments

  1. Theresa Ramus

    Too bad the members of the Patriots felt the need to tell all that they didn’t want to go to the White House. Traditions should be followed I think. I am a traditional kind of person so I believe in them. I agree that it rude to do and I have said it before but people today are rude and they probably don’t realize it. Then given the current President who has been rude himself what can one expect. Unfortunately, the next four years if it lasts that long. (I do have my doubts) will be a roller coaster ride I am afraid. This is just the beginning. Thanks Mr. Mitch for writing the thought provoking articles that you do. I would love to be a fly on the wall at the White House(ha). It would just be so interesting to me.

    Reply
    • Mitch Albom

      I understand the conflict. And yes, it’s going to be a long 4 years…

      Reply
  2. Linda S

    I agree that we should just drop the tradition and Pres. Trump could do that well! Just the way you suggested it he can say “What invitation?”
    I vote that we also get rid of Twitter. Permanently.

    Reply
    • Mitch Albom

      I think you could find a lot of supporters for that Twitter campaign!

      Reply
  3. Jeanette Novak Novak

    I support the six Patriots who will skip the White House visit. It’s totally understandable. The White House has been transgressed by a racist, condescending and authoritarian President. The White House has become a house of hate.

    Reply
    • Mitch Albom

      I hear you. Not happy with what’s coming out of the WH. Perhaps my hope that some adherence to tradition helps keep us moving forward. Thanks for commenting here. Hope you keep doing so.

      Reply

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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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