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How athletes visiting the White House became a political flashpoint

A historian explains the origins of the tradition.

Philadelphia Eagles players kiss the Lombardi Trophy after defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 52 at US Bank Stadium on February 4, 2018, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

When Larry Bird, the Hall of Fame Boston Celtics player, turned down his chance to meet with Ronald Reagan after winning the 1984 NBA championship, he made history: Bird became the first well-known athlete to refuse an invitation to the White House. His cryptic reasoning at the time: “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me.”

But when it comes to the reverse — the president refusing to honor the tradition of meeting with championship athletes — Donald Trump remains unprecedented. Most recently, President Trump abruptly disinvited recent Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles this month because their athletes kneeled in protest during the national anthem, a “political stunt,” according to press secretary Sarah Sanders.

This is despite the fact that no player on the team actually did so last season: At most, some key players publicly stated they had no interest in going to the White House in the first place because of Trump’s statements on athletes’ protests.

The Eagles aren’t alone. Last year, Trump rescinded his invite to Golden State Warrior guard Steph Curry after the player criticized him. “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team,” Trump tweeted. “Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!”

But when and why did this tradition of inviting athletes to the White House start in the first place? According to Gerald Gems, a professor at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and the author of several books about how class, race, and gender spill into sports, it’s always been about the president’s image. “These all just become photo ops to enhance their favorability in a lot of ways, supposedly invoking sport as non-political, although it’s been political for over 100 years,” he told me.

I recently reached out to Gems about the history of this White House tradition. This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Eric Allen Been

What’s behind this tradition of athletes who win championships going to the White House?

Gerald Gems

The history really started quite a long time ago. The first occasion, I believe, was when Andrew Johnson was president, in 1865, and he invited a couple of amateur baseball teams to the White House. Baseball had become a popular sport in the wake of the Civil War, and the soldiers who played it during their off time brought it back to their towns. The sport ended up spreading pretty quickly in the country as a result.

After that, Ulysses S. Grant was the first to invite a professional team, which was the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Redlegs. [The tradition] drops off for a while; then in 1910, President William H. Taft becomes the first one to throw out a baseball to start a season, and that’s a ritual that’s continued. But it really spiked again when Richard Nixon became very involved with football, and it continued from that point on.

Eric Allen Been

Who would you say were the first athletes to decline to come to the White House?

Gerald Gems

The first significant one was in 1984, when Larry Bird and some of the other Boston Celtics players who won the championship refused to accept Ronald Reagan’s invitation. The next one of substance that comes to mind was when Michael Jordan didn’t visit the first President Bush with the rest of the Chicago Bulls.

But what you see in the difference between today and those occasions is that these other athletes, they came up with reasons why they couldn’t come — family responsibilities or other reservations that had already been made. Jordan just opted to play golf rather than visit in 1991. The baseball player Manny Ramirez, who played for the Boston Red Sox, didn’t show to meet the second Bush and claimed that his grandmother died, which caused his absence in 2004. But when he missed the invitation again in 2007, President Bush quipped, “I guess his grandmother died again.”

Athletes of the past were less overtly political. There are outliers like Muhammad Ali, of course. But Jordan was criticized for not taking a political stance. He and his sponsors were worried about the bottom line. Athletes today make so much money that they are not as worried about such financial repercussions.

Eric Allen Been

Is it unprecedented for a president to uninvite athletes to the White House as Trump just did to the Philadelphia Eagles?

Gerald Gems

Yeah, I think so. And this is a classic strategy Trump uses, where he frequently tries to get the upper hand to some extent by changing the story when it doesn’t work out his way. He just said that the Eagles players were disappointing their fans and trying to put the onus on them. But they’ve already said that was not the case, and none of them ever even kneeled.

Eric Allen Been

When, historically, do you first see sports and politics began to really cross?

Gerald Gems

You can start to see it even by the 1890s, especially when Teddy Roosevelt becomes president. He made these speeches about the necessity of maintaining football to create leadership in men. He wanted to create a martial spirit between Americans and Great Britain. In the 1890s, we were trying to surpass Great Britain economically and were contending with them to become the “leader” of the world. You saw it played out in the London Olympics in 1908 — there was great animosity between the Americans and the British athletes.

By the 1920s, for instance, the State Department had secret plans to use the worldwide popularity of Johnny Weissmuller, who was a great Olympic swimmer and a movie star, to promote American products abroad. And, of course, in the Philippines [which was a US colony from 1989 to 1946], physical education and sports became one of the biggest parts of the Philippine education curriculum through the US.

The US government initially used soldiers to teach American games to the Filipinos, and then sent American teachers to the islands. Sport involves competition, which is the basis for a capitalist economy. It taught leadership and cooperation, the basis for a democracy, and it taught respect for authority in the form of referees and umpires. We’ve used sports throughout the world in similar fashion to teach acceptance of American values in a less overt way.

Eric Allen Been

When it comes to the national anthem, playing it before games is relatively new, right?

Gerald Gems

That’s true. During World War I, baseball players were being accused of being draft dodgers for not going into the service. Major League Baseball decided to start playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before their games as a way to show patriotism. So they started this patriotic push to try to overcome this perception of them as being anti-American as it relates to the war.

The whole national anthem thing with football, I think, starts with President Nixon, who as a big football fan made a push among football fans to attract a following. It’s similar to Trump’s campaign in terms of developing or speaking to his base. Nixon, too, would make a lot of trips to places like Kansas State University, a school in a red state, where he was not going to get a lot of opposition to the Vietnam War.

And, yes, you’ve seen the same thing with Trump. He welcomed and praised the NASCAR drivers from the South who came to the White House and, recently, the University of Alabama football team. All of them, and not that they pledged their allegiance or loyalty to him, but they certainly didn’t say anything negative about him. For politicians in general, and presidents in particular, these all just become photo ops to enhance their favorability in a lot of ways, supposedly invoking sport as non-political, although it’s been political for over 100 years.

Eric Allen Been

I’m curious as to whether you think there’s a racial element to Trump’s criticisms of the NFL.

Gerald Gems

Clearly. And let’s just say this — the NBA is much more political than the NFL is, and they handle it better. Last year, the Golden State Warriors refused to attend, and both the Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have already come out and stated that they don’t even want an invitation, right before the Warriors just won.

When it comes to [Colin] Kaepernick and the other NFL players, it just has nothing to do with the flag, or the national anthem. It’s about police shooting black people. That’s what the protest is about. They were kneeling down in protest of the increasing number of shootings that seemed to be taking place all around the country. Trump turned that story around to make it about disrespecting the country itself — the flag, patriotism, American ideals, etc. — which is not at all the case or what they were protesting.

Eric Allen Been

What do you think about the claim — which is so often put out there — that sports and politics just shouldn’t get mixed together?

Gerald Gems

Yeah, that’s what they’ve been saying for over a century. But it’s inevitable that they do. The Argentinian national soccer team, for instance, just backed out of a game in Jerusalem. And this was a political rejoinder to the fact that Trump is trying to push Jerusalem as the new capital, and he’s put the US Embassy there.

Certain nations buy their way into hosting the World Cup; allegedly, Qatar and Russia did. The Olympics is clearly a political event in that the host nation presents its own vision of itself to the rest of the world.

[North Korean leader] Kim Jong Un is a big basketball fan. He invited Dennis Rodman to play over there. That sounds silly, but it’s another way to open channels between countries that seem to be enemies. Now, apparently, they’re going to at least negotiate. Sports is a way to open up channels that might not otherwise be available. There are just all kinds of ways sports play into politics.

Correction: The Argentinian, not Brazilian, soccer team backed out of playing in Jerusalem.

Eric Allen Been is a freelance writer who has written for the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, Vice, Playboy, the New Republic, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and TheAtlantic.com.

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