By: Brian Garland
The Patriots are Super Bowl champions, and like all champion professional sports teams, they are invited to the White House to meet with the President, a tradition that is over 150 years old.
It is universally agreed that the White House visit is an honor, a privilege, and an unforgettable experience for those involved. And yet, as many as six Patriots players refuse to attend. It is time to analyze and understand why these players made the choice.
Put this in perspective: in 2011, when the Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup, the entire team met with President Obama, with the exception of goalie Tim Thomas, who skipped on the account of his political beliefs. He was promptly blasted by the Boston and national sports media for refusing the momentous occasion.
Now in 2017, players are skipping the White House visit for similar reasons. Take Patriots RB LeGarrette Blount, who recently admitted that he does not “feel welcome” in Trump’s White House. Others, including safety Devin McCourty and LB Dont’a Hightower, jokingly declined with a “been there, done that” response.
What is so frustrating about the media when covering this event is that there is an incredible lack of respect for the choices these players make. Most players who decline aren’t always sending a political message, or are in protest of the sitting President. Some have family obligations or other emergencies that keep them from going and do not wish to put media’s focus on them when it should be about the team.
And yes, players recognize the great honor of shaking hands and taking a team photo with the President. Skipping the White House is seen as disrespectful, but it is an exercise of the freedoms we are supposed to have.
I do not advocate for players to skip, nor do I wish for them to be forced to visit the White House. As an outsider, I can only understand in part the possible risks of visiting or not. Most make a mind-boggling amount of money, but they have to market themselves in a way we white-collars cannot comprehend. That is just one factor in choosing to go.
Football players are free from much of the dangers of this world, but to say they’re “sheltered,” when they risk their long-term health on the field for half the year is absurd. It is also unfair to tell them to stick to sports, for many NFL players are college-educated and as intellectually capable as the people who criticize them.
Now let’s explore the pros and cons of visiting and not visiting.
For one, players take part in a special experience, as previously mentioned. Shaking hands with the President is a symbolic recognition of hard work and triumph as a result. It reminds everyone on the team that they really did something, even if that something has a microscopic impact on the landscape of the world. That’s not to say championships are foolish or irrelevant, but their impact is mostly limited to fans of the team or fans of the sport. They do not have equal importance to medical or scientific developments, but they provide a nearly incomparable amount of inspiration.
Players usually satisfy their coaches, owners, agents and families by choosing to go, and it fills them with pride. Going to the White House keeps the media’s focus on the entire team’s success and rewarding their accomplishments, instead of individual players who chose not to attend.
When players skip, it can possibly spoil the celebration for the rest of the team, who welcome the recognition of their efforts. So as not to belittle the rest of the team, which is an unfortunate consequence of personal choice in this situation, players attend regardless of their political beliefs.
These are not the only benefits to attending, but here’s one more that is overlooked: facetime with the President. Thousands of activist groups, labor groups, researchers and inventors see their efforts ignored because they failed to secure funding, or failed to reach the ear of powers such as the President to put their plan into action.
The time the players have to converse with the President is small, but it may be enough to possibly influence President Trump, who is known to be stubborn.
Say James White is a supporter of a research group for a deadly disease. If he can pull the President aside for just a few seconds to talk about it, or briefly mention it as an inspiration to make the President ask about it, White just may be able to help that group receive funding that they need to keep going.
Even if there’s a small chance, it may be worth the time. LeGarrette Blount does not feel welcome in the White House. If he were to attend, he could try to tell Trump exactly why that is, and that has a chance to help this country. However, it’s not hard to see why Blount would be hesitant to attend.
Just before Donald Trump’s inauguration, affluent members of the African-American community such as Kanye West and Steve Harvey met with Trump in New York. These meetings were met with ridicule by the media and further alienated the two figures. The Patriots players possibly considered this in choosing whether or not to meet with Trump.
Some of us private citizens find it easy to criticize players for being political. Although these players are mostly removed from prejudice and numerous other poor African-American struggles that many grew up with, some players are using their status as professionals to do what they believe is right. We do not have to agree, but we have to respect the decision.
We can belittle Steve Harvey and Kanye West’s meetings but the sad fact is that only Steve Harvey and Kanye West had the privilege of speaking with Trump. But now, the New England Patriots have the choice to.
We as fans are given a deeper look into the minds, bodies, and actions of athletes now than ever before. We are able to know exactly what athletes are doing at every time of the day, whether on the field or off. If politicians live under the microscope, then athletes live under a microscope with five times the power.
With this, athletes are now put under additional pressures; from their brands, their coaches, teammates, agents, families. We do not feel bad for them because of their paychecks and that is also understandable. But now, as we know more about our athletes, the expectations have moved beyond the playing field, and what an athlete should be besides a champion is no longer clear.
Pro players even have to emulate politicians in times of crisis. You can see hundreds of players tweeting and voicing their concerns after tragedies and disasters. LeBron James has to market himself so much that it’s only fitting he campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Ohio this November.
I’ve only briefly touched upon the pressures of not attending the White House. Not going leads to a media sideshow of Colin Kaepernick-esque proportions. Speaking of Kaepernick, his situation illustrates the great limitations professional players have in influencing policy in this country, yet despite this, players are still asked to stand up in small ways, like joining in rallies, or campaigning.
The divide between sports and politics used to be solid, but now it is not. I ask of you: is this for the better? Regardless of what you believe, the politicization of more capable minds is a benefit for this country, even if it offends the old guard who believed sports and politics should remain separate entities. Athletes know their own limitations in speaking out but that does not stop them, and we should not stop them. Why? Because more people will listen to LeBron James than Donald Trump.