John Smallwood: A long history of sports stars skipping White House trip

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President Obama introduces Villanova coach Jay Wright while the NCAA-champion Villanova men's basketball team was honored at the White House on Tuesday, May 31, 2016.

NEW ENGLAND Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett said the other day that if his team beats the Atlanta Falcons in the Super Bowl, he “most likely” wouldn’t go with the team on a visit to the White House because he doesn’t support President Trump.

As this story makes the rounds, I have no doubt that it will generate a lot of conversation, because virtually everything remotely connected to the new president is hotly debated on social, traditional and every other kind of media.
Still, whether you agree or disagree with Bennett’s stance, he would not be the first sports champion to decline an invitation from the White House.

New England quarterback Tom Brady was among the most recent, when he didn’t go to with the team to be saluted by President Obama in 2015 after the Patriots beat Seattle in Super Bowl XLIX.

NASCAR champions Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart all said they had prior engagements when invited to visit Obama.

In 1991, Michael Jordan made headlines by not accompanying the Chicago Bulls to meet President George H.W. Bush because he said he wanted to spend time with his family and relax.

Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird infamously said, “If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me,” after he and other members of the 1984 NBA champions declined to meet with President Reagan.

Bennett wouldn’t be the first to decline the invitation based on political reasons or dislike of a sitting president.

With President Nixon embroiled in Watergate and title team visits not yet a regular event, the Miami Dolphins did not visit the White House after their undefeated season of 1972. Four decades later, in 2013, Obama honored the Dolphins by hosting them at the White House. But center Jim Langer, guard Bob Kuechenberg and defensive tackle Manny Fernandez declined because they did not agree with administration policies.

Members of the Super Bowl XX champion Chicago Bears criticized Hall of Fame teammate Dan Hampton when he said he didn’t like Obama and would not attend the ceremony Obama held in 2011 to make up for the one that was canceled by the space shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986.

Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk said he was Catholic and disagreed with the Obama’s support of Planned Parenthood.

President Clinton took snubs from Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura, who later cited the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and the 1993 Ryder Cup team, whose member Tom Lehmann called the president a “draft-dodging baby killer.”

President George W. Bush was slighted by Chicago White Sox World Series manager Ozzie Guillen, a friend of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who was at odds with the United States.

Goalie Tim Thomas of the 2011 Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins didn’t meet with Obama but said he also would not have met with a Republican president because he was a member of the tea party and believed, “both (political) parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country.”

Other athletes have given a variety of reasons for not going to the White House.
Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison has the distinction of sacking two presidents – George W. Bush and Obama – because he didn’t like the idea that the Steelers’ opponent would’ve been invited had it won the Super Bowl.

“If you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don’t win the Super Bowl,” he said.

Although the first recorded moment of a president inviting a sports team to the White House was Aug. 30, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson met with two amateur baseball teams, it wasn’t always a routine practice.

It wasn’t until 1924 that a World Series champion came to the White House, President Coolidge inviting the Washington Senators.

President Kennedy welcomed the first NBA champion in 1963 – not surprisingly, the Boston Celtics.

The 1976 Indiana University basketball team is believed to be the first NCAA champion honored, and that was by a former Michigan football player named Gerald Ford. Villanova’s men’s basketball team visited Obama in May after winning the NCAA title.

The first Super Bowl champion to visit the White House was the 1980 Pittsburgh Steelers, at the invitation of President Carter.

And while the tradition of White House visits really took off in 1980 with Reagan, the first Stanley Cup champion to be honored was the 1991 Pittsburgh Penguins by President George H.W. Bush.

Presidents George W. Bush and Obama were well-documented sports fans, and virtually any champion from any sport was invited to come to the White House to meet and present the president with an honorary team jersey.

Because it’s an easy “feel-good” photo opportunity for any administration, Trump will likely continue the tradition, but, like his predecessors, he can also expect some occasional snubs.

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