WASHINGTON — Sean Spicer repeated the last four digits of his Social Security number for the Secret Service stationed at the White House front gates Thursday afternoon. No, unfortunately, there was no one by that name on the list for media credentials.
So Sean Spicer, with a Red Sox tie on and his two kids in tow, called the White House press office in an effort to get back onto the grounds from which he had unceremoniously resigned nearly two years prior. It took about half an hour for the situation to get resolved. An apologetic Secret Service agent eventually brought Spicer out an event credential, taking back the media one they had tentatively given him previously.
“I thought you said you were a member of the press,” she said by way of explanation.
Later, after the ceremony, Spicer stopped briefly to address the media on his way out. He was relaxed and smiling as he talked about his love for Boston baseball. As he turned to go, a briefing room technician shouted, “Come back!”
“No thanks!” Spicer said in a burst of laughter. “I’ll be back if we win again,” he added.
He meant the Boston Red Sox, not the Trump administration. The former press secretary and White House communications director wasn’t talking about politics as he addressed the assembled media outside the Oval Office. He was here as a well-connected sports fan, just like all the khaki’d kids of White House staffers who gathered on the lawn in their suit jackets and Red Sox hats, with the hope of scoring an autograph or two. The lightness of the whole event had a surreal feel to it — both because of the gravity of what takes place there daily and because of the overt controversy about exactly who made the trip.
Most of the team’s players of color — Mookie Betts, David Price, Jackie Bradley Jr., Rafael Devers, Hector Velázquez, Xander Bogaerts, Sandy León, and Christian Vázquez — weren’t at the White House. Neither was Puerto Rican manager Alex Cora, who referenced President Donald Trump’s response to Hurricane Maria directly as an explanation for his absence. What was left was a notably white contingent who stood silently and smiled as everyone around them avoided making any meaningful statements.
Ultimately, the only people on the South Lawn who were talking about the political ramifications of the Red Sox’s White House visit were the actual members of the media. For everyone else, it was a celebration of sports as escapism by a demographic for whom that’s a realistic option.
“We don’t see it as a racial divide,” said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner when asked about the clear racial divide between players who felt comfortable visiting Trump’s White House and those who did not.
None of the players spoke to the media and President Trump stuck to his script while honoring the incredible season the Red Sox had last year. This left little room to extrapolate on how we got to the point where Werner could deny a fact that has been covered extensively in the days leading up to the trip and little opportunity to ask why, given the divide, the event was happening at all.
It represents a particular position of privilege to decide that President Trump’s alienating lack of aid to Puerto Rico, that his alarmist degradation of Mexicans, that his unrepentant association with avowed white nationalists, that his regular racist dog whistling can be set aside for an afternoon of pomp and circumstance. The option to opt out of engaging with the politics of a man who holds the highest political office in the country is one that is afforded to only white people. Full stop.
By accepting the invitation to be honored at the White House, the Red Sox put their employees of color in the position of having to choose between the discomfort of being party to a president who would denigrate their rights or the discomfort of taking a stand that will make them enemies of many in their fan base.
Werner said that “baseball is apolitical,” echoing earlier statements from ownership that the team’s visit to the White House would be as well. This is laughable given the context and especially given the climate. But let’s pretend for a moment that it is possible to do just that — a neutral visit to the White House. If Velázquez, who is from Mexico, doesn’t feel comfortable shaking the hand of a man who called Mexican immigrants “animals” and “rapists,” is that political? Or is it personal?
If the Red Sox asked him to go, even implicitly, if they make honoring such a president the norm for members of the organization, if they put the onus on Velázquez to explain himself — and he did, citing Trump’s comments, because of course he was asked about the decision — is that a respect for all viewpoints? Or is it an active othering of a marginalized member of the team for whom remaining apolitical in this situation was never an option.
Boston is a notoriously inhospitable city for black and brown athletes (which is another way of saying it’s notoriously racist) and it’s hard to imagine that singling themselves out as unsupportive of the current administration will endear any of the Red Sox who skipped Thursday’s ceremony to the kind of fans who hurled racial epithets at Adam Jones and CC Sabathia over the years. You only need to look as far as the comments on unrelated images on Cora’s Instagram to sense the hostility toward an outspoken minority.
Ahead of the visit to the White House, Cora downplayed the controversy in comments to ESPN and after the ceremony, Werner insisted, “It’s not going to divide the clubhouse.”
But on Thursday the team was divided, literally. And although they weren’t the ones posing on the White House lawn, the attention was on the players who chose not to make the trip. The Red Sox could have protected those members of their team from some of the blowback or feelings of alienation or intrusive questions from the media about what this means for clubhouse chemistry by declining the invitation entirely.
Doing so, which is not unprecedented, would have come with its own wave of criticism. But, crucially, the team would have taken the heat as a whole, showing solidarity with anyone affiliated with the organization who feels marginalized by Trump’s policies and affording them, as much as they ever can, the option of sticking to sports.
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