White House visits become political litmus test for athletes
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PHILADELPHIA — For victorious sports teams these days, the confetti and champagne are apt to be accompanied by a politically fraught question: Are you going to the White House?
What used to be one of the most innocuous photo-ops in sports is anything but. Going — or not going — has become a political statement in the era of President Donald Trump, who has managed to draw athletes into his game, whether they want to play or not.
“If you do go, you’re associating yourself with his policies,” said Howard Bryant, author of “The Heritage: Black Athletes, A Divided America and the Politics of Patriotism.” ”If you don’t go, you run the risk of branding yourself as not having enough respect for the office.”
This week, Trump canceled a White House celebration for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles after it became clear very few players planned to attend.
Trump instead went to his go-to play: attacking as un-American the NFL players who have knelt during the national anthem to protest police killings of black men. (In truth, none of the Eagles took a knee this past season.)
In the NBA, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors have already rejected a White House celebration, however their championship matchup turns out.
And the Villanova Wildcats — this year’s NCAA men’s basketball champions, who also won in 2016 and celebrated with President Barack Obama — will have to decide, if an invitation comes, whether to return to Washington for a ceremony with Trump.
“Sports are not a distraction from politics — they are politics by a different means,” said University of Southern California sociologist Ben Carrington. “Because Trump’s administration is so highly charged, it’s understandable that many players would refuse to attend. It’s happened before, but never on this scale.”
Before Trump took office, one of the biggest fusses to emerge from a White House victory celebration was the great flip-flop incident of 2005, when the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse championship team wore the sandals to meet President George W. Bush.
In snubbing the Eagles, Trump praised other championship teams that have attended White House celebrations during his administration, among them the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Houston Astros.
Athletes are now being put in the position of taking a patriotic litmus test during their shining moment of victory, said Cornell University professor Grant Farred.
“It’s incredibly difficult for these athletes, and not a choice they have imposed on themselves,” Farred said. “A reporter is asking you about your win, and you’re now having to deal with an obviously political question, not of your making. It’s not a good situation to be in, one way or the other.”
Asked about the feud on Wednesday, the Eagles tried to move on. Rather than answer reporters’ questions, safety Malcolm Jenkins silently held up poster boards referring to problems he has worked to change, including urban violence and mass incarceration.
For two years, the NFL protests have divided fans, largely along racial lines, and given Trump a powerful issue with which to fire up his core supporters.
During the season, the president referred to the protesting players as “sons of bitches” and suggested at a rally in Alabama before a mostly white audience that they be fired. Last month, in response to the NFL owners’ decision to punish kneeling, Trump said players who continue to protest “maybe shouldn’t be in the country.”
Farred said that while Trump is likely to return to the issue, he risks overplaying his hand: “How many swing voters can he afford to alienate?”
The question could come up again soon, with the Washington Capitals on the verge of winning the Stanley Cup against the Vegas Golden Knights. Though they may have to confront the question of whether to go to the White House, for most of the players, their patriotism would not be at issue.
Only three of the Capitals are American.