Of all the genuinely flesh-rending political developments coming from President Donald Trump’s decision to singlehandedly restrict immigration based solely on passport content because he thinks all Muslims are terrorists, there is one small bit of good news. One very small, tiny, infinitesimal, almost sub-atomic bit of good news.
This may mean the end of the champions trip to the White House – if not once and for all, but for the foreseeable future.
“May,” we mean. Nothing is certain in these uncertain times, and if the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl, there is the likelihood of at least one more trip. In addition, the Cleveland Cavaliers are owned by Dan Gilbert, who not only was a big Trump supporter but housed the Republican National Convention this past summer, so there’s that.
The Warriors? Well, Secretary of State Steve Kerr will be a significantly tougher sell.
Mostly, though, what we are likely to see is management, which likes the visual of being at the White House, suddenly flirting with mutinies by their players and staff members, who may not like the visual of being at the White House.
And what we will see after that are a lot of face-saving excuses about why College Team A can’t make the trip because of an overseas tour or finals or recruiting or beers at the frat, or why Pro Team B will have a lot of players turning up sick the day of the meet’n’greet. And thus will end an association between government and sport that at best was mildly charming, but was mostly an exercise in hypocrisy – that is, if you think “stick to sports” is a viable concept.
After all, the White House IS politics whether you like those politics or not, so the tradition of the White House champions visit, which first happened the last time the Washington Senators won the World Series in 1924 and intruded on Calvin Coolidge’s day, and became an all-sports tradition during Ronald Reagan’s Administration. Most of those visits were benign affairs that few people found particularly objectionable.
In truth, though, those visits fly in the face of the strict observance of the “Stick To Sports” movement, which is typically wielded against sports figures who don’t toe to conservative orthodoxies.
Besides, “stick to sports” is mostly a reactionary construct that actually means, “Stick to sports unless your political views happen to coincide with mine or that of the power structure I support.” “Stick to sports” is “You have freedom of speech until I disagree with you, at which point you should shut up and stick to sports.”
Some athletes have skipped the trip on their own. Larry Bird missed the ’84 visit because as he said, “The president knows where to find me,” and Michael Jordan passed on George H.W. Bush in 1991 for a golf date. James Harrison skipped twice while with the Super Bowl winning Steelers, once for Bush and once for Obama, though some suspect it was Harrison’s fear of flying that might have been the motivating factor. And Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins declined in 2012 as a statement against the evils of the federal government, though the prevailing sentiment at the time was that he’d have turned up for a Republican president.
But politics has turned more overtly hateful in recent times, so we are about to see a lot more Thomases on a lot more teams because of Trump’s whirlwind foot-wiping of the Constitution, and that means a lot of teams who either send a portion of their employees, or decide not to bother at all, mostly for reasons of organizational coherence.
That means White House trips will come down to matters of individual conscience, as in Bill Belichick or Tom Brady may cheerfully accept an invitation that may not be accepted by, say, LeGarrette Blount or Devin McCourty. It may mean that Gilbert goes to see the recipient of so much of his disposable income but cannot rely on having LeBron James or Kyrie Irving with him.
And frankly, that works just fine. Politics is an individual matter, or a matter of like minds banding together toward a common goal. If all the members of a team want to go to the White House, fine, but it will no longer work as a compulsory activity, not in this climate. If a player wants to go to harangue the President, that may be considered bad taste but it is now on the board as a possibility.
And tis flies in the face, throat and stomach of the public relations opportunity it was designed to be. It becomes a potentially divisive and self-defeating photo op that can break down the commonalities men and women find through shared victory, and therefore becomes antithetical to the point of having a team at all.
So barring a reversal in form by President Trump, the idea of inviting a team to the White House that only responds in part becomes more trouble than it is worth to all parties. The day of the team visit, in short, may be over.
And maybe that’s as it should be until politics starts behaving a hell of a lot better.