Sports and Politics: When Worlds Collide

I love the movie Forrest Gump, and there is a scene in the movie when Forrest makes the All American team and gets to go to the White House to meet President Kennedy. Forrest drinks way too many sodas and by the time he get to shake the President’s hand he has to pee so badly that it is all he can say. It is funny and sweet and something only Forrest Gump can do. I have always loved when sports teams visit the White House. I love the funny quips and jokes, I love these enormous athletes dwarfing the President of the United States. Not only is it a great PR moment in which the President can be seen as “normal” and interested in “more than just politics”; it is also a unifying moment for the nation. You don’t have to like the President’s politics, but you can feel more connected with him and on the same level if the President is celebrating your team. It is a pretty great feeling when a President from Chicago (Obama) has to praise the Golden State Warriors for their win rather than his team, the Bulls. It is a simple moment of peace especially in such divisive times


The History and the Tradition:

Champion teams have been visiting the President as far back as Andrew Johnson in 1865. Ulysses S. Grant, Calvin Coolgin, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford all welcomed various teams. Not for any particular reason other than that the Presidents really wanted to meet the teams so they used the power of their office to make it happen. However, it is Ronald Reagan who is credited with making it a regular tradition for every winning team in the collegiate and professional sphere to be given an invitation to the White House. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have all been well known sports lovers who seem to really enjoy meeting the different teams regardless of the sport or region they are from.


What Happens to Teams and Players Who Do Go:​ 

Most often, the visit involves a couple handshakes, one or two speeches, a group photo, and the gift of a signed ball or jersey for the President (often with the President’s number being their place in the list of presidents, i.e. Obama is #45). Many teams also perform some sort of community service while they are in the capitol, such as a local school or Boys and Girls club.


You may remember back in 2016 when the Cleveland Cavaliers visited President Obama after their national championship win. The visit went viral after the team and Michelle Obama posted a video doing the mannequin challenge. Or when, after their historic win, the Chicago Cubs moved up their visit to the White House to January 16th in order to see President Obama before he left office. Then they visited again on January 28th to meet the newly inaugurated President Trump.


In early January, Clemson's football team visited the White House after their national championship win. The visit happened in the midst of the government shutdown and therefore had no catering service in the White House. Trump, now rather infamously, ordered piles of various fast food to be served to the athletes and coaches. The reception of the team was positive and the visit garnered quite a lot of social media attention. However, I think it speaks to the overall attitude of this administration: “when the going gets tough don’t solve the problem just buy your way out of it.” It should also be noted that many of the African American players on the team chose not to visit the White House, although it was not made a public issue at the time.


Current Teams and Players to Refuse the “Honor”:

During the government shut down, the Golden State Warriors chose to visit former President Obama rather than the currently president, Donald Trump. It is an action which seems to have garnered more praise than controversy, as they have yet to visit President Trump any time they have won the championship.


Last year, President Trump withdrew his invitation to the Warriors after several players made known their decision to decline. Of the New England Patriots, six players including Martellus Bennett, Devin McCourty, and LeGarrette Blount declined President Trump’s invitation, citing reasons like taking issue with the President’s policies and personal character. Many of the players on the Eagles, who won the Super Bowl in 2018, expressed a desire to not attend. This resulted in the entire visit being cancelled by President Trump. The White House blamed the cancelation on the team for using the visit as a “political stunt”. Although the visit has yet to happen, some players on the 2018 world series champion team, the Boston Red Soxs, have stated they will not visit the President. However, as of right now the visit is still expected to happen.


Matt Birk of the Raven said (about Obama), "I would say that I have great respect for the office of the presidency, but about five or six weeks ago, our president made a comment in a speech and he said, 'God bless Planned Parenthood.' Planned Parenthood performs about 330,000 abortions a year. I am Catholic, I am active in the pro-life movement and I just felt like I couldn't deal with that. I couldn't endorse that in any way." Many other athletes invited to visit Presidents have provided the same sort of reasoning for refusing the invitation. I absolutely understand and respect that they may have a difference of opinion with the President. What I don’t understand is why being honored by the President for winning the Super Bowl has anything to do with whether or not you agree with the President’s policies. Athletes are not politicians, they are private citizens. Plenty of private citizens accept awards and honors from presidents all the time, and no one bats an eye at differences of opinion on policy. If nothing else it is an opportunity to hold the attention of the most powerful person in our nation, an opportunity which can be used for good, to advocate for issues and policies you find important.


These visits were not supposed to be about politics, they’re about honoring a winning team on their hard work and how well they represent our country. However, especially following the way in which the NFL addressed the national anthem protests, there has certainly been a rise in athlete’s being publicly involved in politics. But sports are about showing up, being a “good sport” as it were, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what team you play for or who you vote for. We are all Americans, we are all in the same boat, and if we don’t row together then we will sink together.