The Pittsburgh Penguins have been defended, assailed, saluted and eviscerated for their announcement on Sunday that the Stanley Cup champions would attend a White House celebration with President Trump. Some fans have applauded it. Some fans, including some Penguins fans, are disappointed.
The timing, at least for the NHL, was atrocious: Arriving on the same weekend that the president called NFL players peacefully protesting police brutality during the national anthem “sons of bitches” who should be fired by team owners, and formally disinvited the NBA champion Golden State Warriors (and star Steph Curry) from visiting the White House for their criticism of him.
(It should be said the NCAA men’s basketball national champion North Carolina Tar Heels aren’t going as well, citing an inability to find a workable date to visit.)
Here were predominantly black pro athletes being singled out by the office of the presidency, and here was the current standard-bearer of a 93-percent white sport distancing itself from that controversy by claiming the status quo. But the president is now a fan, apparently:
Please to inform that the Champion Pittsburgh Penguins of the NHL will be joining me at the White House for Ceremony. Great team!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 24, 2017
Naturally, the controversy has bubbled over and covered the rest of the hockey world, to the point where Auston Matthews is playing constitutional scholar at practices.
So why did the Penguins ultimately decide to go, in light of this weekend’s events?
“Everyone’s got the right to go or not to go. But we’ve been invited and we accepted the invitation. I don’t think you have to read into it any more than that,” said Sidney Crosby on Sunday, via the AP, after facing the St. Louis Blues during a Hockeyville USA exhibition game Sunday night in Cranberry Township, Pa.
(Does that first line apply to Penguins players who might not want to attend on moral grounds? Time will tell.)
Via the Post-Gazette, here’s Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan:
“We respect the office of the president and the White House, and the history and tradition of the championship team getting invited to the White House. As an organization, we decided that we were going to accept the invitation. It’s politics aside. Having said that, we also respect the fact that someone has a right to protest. We totally respect that, as well. That’s how our organization looks at it and that’s how we all feel.”
All of this is very much in keeping with the Penguins’ statement on the decision to accept the invitation, which talks about “respecting the institution of the Office of the President, and the long tradition of championship teams visiting the White House.”
Now, where did this decision come from? Sullivan, whose bench buddy John Tortorella threatened to bench any player that didn’t stand for the anthem?
How about ownership: Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle?
Burkle’s interesting. The supermarket chain owner is a Democrat, outwardly, and has been a fundraiser for progressive causes throughout his life. More recently, however, he sounded disillusioned with the Clintons, disappointed in President Obama and raised money for GOP candidate John Kasich in 2016. (For the record, he’s also fundraised for California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat, this year.)
He’s known Trump for years, although one couldn’t call him a fan of his politics.
Burkle’s role in this decision has been murky, because of that assumed conflict of interests: He should, in theory, abhor the current administration, and yet here are the Penguins going to the White House.
But Dave Molinari, in a revelatory piece on Burkle this summer for the Post Gazette, got him on the record about a White House visit with words that sound very familiar to anyone who read the team’s statement:
“I do a lot of fundraising,” he said. “People would cut Ralph’s [loyalty] cards up … if I had a fundraiser for a candidate they didn’t like. “And they can do that. That’s why you shouldn’t mix politics and business. I didn’t mix it, but to the extent that people pay attention, that was the situation.”
“I think it’s a tradition that should be honored, first and foremost,” Burkle said. “There’s a lot of emotion around the president. There’s a lot of negativity, and there’s a lot of passion. But it is the president, it is the White House.
“If you want to protest, you can protest. If you want to be unhappy, you can be unhappy. If you want to voice your opinion, you can voice your opinion. But I, personally, don’t think this is the stage to do it on.
“It’s an honor to go there. It’s a moment a lot of people won’t ever get again. I hope we win again, but you don’t take it for granted that you get to go to the White House. … Every time I go there, it’s an amazing thing. I don’t think that who the occupant is should determine whether the team goes to the White House.”
Like we said yesterday: The Penguins know their demographics. They know their geography, and understand what the color red means on an electoral map, just like the Warriors know they’re playing to their base in standing up to the president.
They also know that there’s a greater chance they’ll lose more customers and create a larger distraction by declining the invitation than accepting it, because that’s just how that goes. And for a two-time Stanley Cup champion, you know they’re going to choose the path of least resistance.
While they’ll cite tradition and honor and whatever else they apply to what is essentially a photo op with a politician, the reality is that it’s a decision they’re able to make thanks to their privilege as champions of a 93-percent white, majority conservative sport; players who can watch their peers in the NFL and NBA get singled-out and disparaged by the White House and ignore it, because it’s not their fight. Even if it should be.