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Tradition of White House visits by sports champions enters new era

By DERON SNYDER

Traditions can be tricky as time passes and norms change. Customs that once occurred without a second thought can become questionable and antiquated. Beliefs that once were widely held can be broadly rejected a few generations later.

These shifts take place within families and society in general, most notably in attitudes toward race and gender.

Few individuals, at least publicly, argue in favor of old practices such as segregated restrooms and male-only workplaces. Likewise, the idea of reserving certain positions for white players, or limiting athletic opportunities for women, is no longer standard operating procedure.

Breaking traditions in politics has been all the rage lately and has seeped into sports. Some athletes are more willing to express their views, either by speaking out or kneeling down. Others have made their thoughts known by being elsewhere during team trips to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Not every player who declines an invitation to the White House after a championship does so for political reasons. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison skipped visits under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama. “I don’t feel the need to go, actually,” Harrison said in 2009. “I don’t feel like it’s that big a deal to me.”

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said that’s how he feels about several players who announced they won’t accompany the team whenever it visits President Donald Trump. It’s not scheduled yet, but the trip will be New England’s fifth in the last 16 years.

“Every time we’ve had the privilege of going to the White House, a dozen players don’t go,” Kraft said Monday on the Today Show. “This is the first time it’s gotten any media attention.”

That’s not exactly true.

Maybe no one notices if the third-string guard is a no-show, but Tom Brady made news in April 2015 for his absence after Super Bowl 49. A spokesman said Brady had a prior “family commitment.” Michael Jordan (1991) and then-Boston Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein (2008) also cited family reasons for skipping out.

But the motivation for some absenteeism has been clear.

“I’ll just say my views are diametrically opposed to the president’s,” former Miami Dolphin Manny Fernandez said in 2013 when Obama honored the undefeated 1972 squad. Fernandez and teammates Jim Langer and Bob Kuechenberg declined to attend. “We’ve got some real moral compass issues in Washington,” Langer said. “I don’t want to be in a room with those people and pretend I’m having a good time. I can’t do that. If that (angers) people, so be it.”

That was four years ago. Suffice it to say the political climate has deteriorated tremendously since then, creating a landscape like no other before.

At least six New England Patriots players said they won’t go, citing Trump’s divisive policies as the reason. “I don’t feel accepted in the White House,” defensive back Devin McCourty told Time. “With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”

There’s more than one way to show your disapproval – or support – and all have their place.

Brady for some reason has been reluctant to take sides in his statements, but spoke loud and clear by prominently displaying a Trump hat during the campaign. McCourty has verbalized his position and won’t be in attendance; like-minded players can opt to attend AND let everyone know that they disagree with the president.

The White House belongs to the people; the First Family just happens to live there.

“Visiting really is a great experience,” Brady said Tuesday on PFT Live. He accompanied the Patriots after three of the previous four Super Bowls (under Bush) and the Michigan after its 1997 national championship (under President Bill Clinton). “Putting politics aside, it never was a political thing. At least, it never was to me. It meant you won a championship and you got to experience something cool with your team, with your teammates.

“Everybody has their own choice,” he said. “It’s an offseason. These days are valuable for everybody. You only get so much time with your family and friends, and if people don’t want to go they don’t want to go and that’s their choice.”

If the intention is to send a message via one’s absence, that’s fine, too. If, like Langer, a player can’t bring himself to fake-smile and shake hands with a leader he abhors, so be it.

You can respect the office without respecting the officeholder, whether or not the latter respects the former.

“This is America,” Kraft said. “We’re all free to do whatever’s best for us. We’re just privileged to be in a position to be going.”

Hosting champions at the White House happened sporadically dating to 1865 but has been an established practice since the 1980s, when President Ronald Regan began extending regular invitations to college and pro teams. For all we know, a number of attendees in the past had problems with the administration but went anyway.

Regardless, more and more now are willing to state their opposition and stay away.

The tradition of automatically accepting the invite – or keeping beliefs to yourself – is fading. Such shifts aren’t unusual, though. Old norms and new generations often don’t mix.

Sports are no exception.

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