New England Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett (88) poses for a selfie with his brother Michael Bennett who plays for the Seattle Seahawks while on the field for pre game warm ups. The Atlanta Falcons play the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI at NRG Stadium in Houston on Feb. 5, 2017. Photo: Boston Globe/Boston Globe Via Getty Images
One day after the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl, safety Devin McCourty announced that he would not visit the White House with the team, saying he wouldn’t feel “accepted” in the White House because of what he described as President Donald Trump’s “many strong opinions and prejudices.”
McCourty was the second Patriots player to say he is skipping the tradition. Tight end Martellus Bennett previously said he would not be making the trip, saying he didn’t support “the guy that’s in the House.”
New England Patriots free safety Devin McCourty listens to questions during a news conference during Patriots media availability on Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2017, in Houston. Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle
FILE – In this Oct. 15, 2015, file photo, New York Mets starting pitcher Jacob deGrom works against a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning in Game 5 of baseball’s National League Division Series, in Los Angeles. Photo: Alex Gallardo
WASHINGTON, DC – FEBRUARY 04: U.S. President Barack Obama holds a Golden State Warriors basketball jersey during an event with the team in the East Room on February 4, 2016 in Washington, DC. Obama welcomed the 2015 NBA Champion Golden State Warriors to the White House to congratulate the team on their championship season. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images
WASHINGTON – OCTOBER 14: U.S. President George W. Bush poses with members of San Antonio Spurs after two-time most valuable player Tim Duncan (4th-R) presented him a jersey October 14, 2003 during a Rose Garden event at the White House in Washington, DC. President Bush hosted the 2003 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday. Photo: Alex Wong, Getty
While championship teams being invited to the White House is a long-standing tradition, players opting out is becoming an even bigger one, and it is almost certainly going to force a change in how the ceremony is handled.
A few of the more notable recent examples include:
Pitcher Jake Arrieta, who lashed out at anti-Trump people in Hollywood following the election, did not visit the White House recently with the Chicago Cubs when President Barack Obama was still in office.
Tim Thomas, a noted member of the Tea Party, did not visit the White House with the Boston Bruins in 2011.
Even Tom Brady skipped the White House visit with the Patriots in 2015.
In the past, most players avoided controversy by saying their decision was based on other factors, such as a scheduling conflict or family commitments.
But with Trump in the White House, that tone seems to be changing. And now that the door to openly challenge the White House is open, more athletes could follow suit, just as some did when Colin Kaepernick of the San Francisco 49ers took a knee during the national anthem to protest police brutality.
If declined White House visits become more common, it would be a problem for the leagues, the teams, and the White House. The tradition already is becoming more about who is not going than it is about who is going.
While some feel players have an obligation to go, teams can’t force the players to attend. So how do they fix increasingly negative optics? Well, there is actually a simple solution that almost certainly will happen eventually and would change the tradition forever.
Instead of the White House inviting an entire team, the White House would ask teams to select players for “the honor of visiting the White House.”
Maybe teams will select five players, or 10, or even 30. Maybe they will select the entire team. It doesn’t really matter. The point will be to make it look as if players are being honored with selection. But in reality, the key is to simply invite only the players who actually want to go.
When that happens, players like Bennett and McCourty and Thomas and Arrieta can no longer “skip” the visit. They can’t opt out of something to which they are not invited.
Under this scenario, the focus is back on who is actually going and representing the team, and the story is no longer about who is protesting the president, no matter who is sitting in the Oval Office.