Like literally every other interaction in the Donald Trump presidency, a championship team’s visit to the White House invariably becomes a Political Event, whether because of who’s invited, who’s disinvited, who makes a statement, or what’s on the menu. And like literally every other interaction in the Trump presidency, it wasn’t always like this.
There was a time when a championship team’s visit to the White House followed a standard script: everyone would stand behind the president, who would make a few easy jokes about the coach/the team/the star player. Someone would hand the president a jersey with his name and his presidential number on the back. Everyone would smile for the cameras, and then everyone would go on their way.
Winning teams have visited the White House for at least 150 years, per ESPN, dating back to when President Andrew Johnson feted two amateur baseball clubs, the Brooklyn Atlantics and the familiar-named Washington Nationals. The first pro baseball team to visit the White House? The Cincinnati Red Stockings, who met with President Ulysses S. Grant four years later.
The first NBA champions to visit the White House were the Boston Celtics, who met President Kennedy in 1963. The Indiana men’s basketball team is apparently the first NCAA champion to visit, traveling to Washington to meet President Ford in 1976.
The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first Super Bowl champions to visit, sharing a bill with the Pittsburgh Pirates to meet President Carter in 1980. The Pittsburgh Penguins were the first Stanley Cup team, visiting the first President Bush in 1991. Earlier, Carter’s successor, Ronald Reagan had opened the White House doors wide to a range of championship teams, making them an annual and expected occurrence.
Under Trump, the White House championship visits have taken on a new, often strange air. Trump deliberately disinvited the Golden State Warriors (who weren’t going to come anyway), then welcomed the Clemson Tigers football team with an array of fast-food options. Most recently, Trump gave Nationals catcher Kurt Suzuki one of the more ... interesting embraces you’ll ever see.
Many players make news for opting out of White House visits while Trump is in office, but that’s nothing new; Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Tom Brady are among those who have ducked out of White House visits for various reasons. The Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas and the Baltimore Ravens’ Matt Birk declined to visit President Obama in the White House explicitly because of his politics.
Like so much else in America now, the traditional White House visit is becoming openly political. We’ll have to wait one to five years to see if it ever gets back to the old grip-and-grin days of yore.
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