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Don’t stoop to Donald Trump levels, Martellus Bennett

Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett eyes the ball under pressure from the Falcons' Keanu Neal during the second half of the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Martellus Bennett should go to the White House with his Patriots teammates. I write this even though I detest many of the things President Donald Trump is trying to do as the leader of the country.

The former Bears tight end said he won’t take part in a White House ceremony celebrating the Patriots’ Super Bowl LI victory, citing his opposition to Trump’s policies. I’m all for athletes speaking out for what they believe in, but this isn’t the place for it. You don’t have to respect the person in the White House, but it’s important to respect the presidency. There’s a distinction there, enough of one to put aside politics.

When Trump called the man who ruled against his immigration ban a ‘‘so-called judge,’’ he denigrated the judicial branch. By not going to the White House ceremony, Bennett will join Trump in the mud. He might as well call him a ‘‘so-called president’’ and be done with it.

I think Bennett is better than that. He’d make a bigger statement by reversing field and saying he wants to rise above the ugliness in which the country is engulfed. (If he does change his mind, though, I’d worry the sometimes-silly, always-out-there Bennett would sidle up to Trump in an ‘‘I’m With Stupid’’ T-shirt.)

The trip to the White House is a tradition that honors team, not player. In the same way, it’s not so much about the president as it is a recognition of the best of American sports, whether it’s the NBA, the NHL, Major League Baseball or the NFL. It’s about excellence and the nation’s love for athletics. It’s not about Trump, and it’s not about Bennett. It’s about something nobler.

It irritated me when athletes declined to visit the White House with their teammates while Barack Obama was president, then hid behind a previous family commitment, an already-planned vacation, a hunting trip, the sun was in their eyes when the invitation arrived or some other lame excuse. So if you’re a Trump supporter, at least give Bennett credit for being honest. I’m sure he’s getting royally abused on social media for his stand. Any public figure who says anything on either side of the political argument is likely to find himself or herself with a new orifice, thanks to Twitter, et al.

Adding to the stickiness of the situation is that a Patriots trip to the White House will be awash in politics with or without Bennett. Owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady all expressed support for Trump while he was running for president, so this could have the feel of a double victory celebration. For anyone who voted for Hillary Clinton, the affair will taste like Drano.

Bennett has been critical of the president on social media, but he has made it clear that, even though he and Brady are on opposite sides when it comes to Trump, there are no issues between them. And that says a lot about the power of sports. You walk into the locker room or onto the field, and the only thing that should matter is team. In a much less profound way, being honored at the White House should be a reflection of that team-first attitude. You shouldn’t put yourself above the group.

Bennett was excellent in the Patriots’ 34-28 overtime victory, catching four passes for first downs. The Falcons put heavy pressure on Brady, who looked in danger of losing a limb, if not his life, in the first half. The Patriots asked Bennett to be more of a blocker in the second half, and it made a big difference. They didn’t take a lead in the game until the final play.

No one player should take away from the buzz of that accomplishment, and I’m afraid Bennett is doing that, no matter how small the measure. When the cameras zoom in on Trump and the Patriots at the White House, you can bet Bennett’s absence will be noted prominently.

No date has been set for the Patriots’ visit, but it seems clear Bennett will be a no-show whenever it happens. He won’t be the first player to boycott a White House ceremony, and he won’t be the last. It’s selfish every time someone does it, but give this to Bennett, too: He’ll be a free agent soon, and he can’t know if some teams will be offended by his stance. But he’s making his stand anyway.

I wish he’d go. I’d call his decision sad, but then I’d sound like You Know Who.

Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.

Email: rmorrissey@suntimes.com