When President Trump withdrew his invitation to the Eagles to meet with him at the White House, he fractured the decades-old tradition of championship sports teams visiting the sitting president.
With just a handful of Eagles planning to attend, the president canceled the team’s ceremony and instead held what he called a “Celebration of America.” While cancellations and controversy surrounding the normally low-tension event — which has only become a tradition in recent decades — aren’t unheard of, they aren’t common, either.
A recent tradition
Championship-winning teams regularly visiting the White House is a relatively new practice, although athletes have been meeting with presidents for more than a century.
On Aug. 30, 1865, President Andrew Johnson welcomed the fledgling Washington Nationals baseball team, along with the Brooklyn Atlantics, to the White House, marking what is believed to be the first time any sports team received an official invitation to the presidential residence.
Although both teams were well-known, that visit predated the formation of a professional baseball league. More than 50 years later, in 1924, the World Series-winning Washington Senators visited President Calvin Coolidge, becoming the first championship team to be welcomed to the White House.
In the decades after, other presidents hosted professional and collegiate teams, but it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan’s presidency that the White House visit became a regular post-championship occurrence.
What typically happens
Regardless of president, sport, or team, these White House visits tend to follow a template. First, the team enters a room filled with the press. They are followed by the president, who, with the champions precariously arranged behind him, gives a congratulatory speech filled with references to hard work, dedication, and teamwork. The team then presents the commander-in-chief with a signed jersey or ball, jokes are made, photos are taken, and the event concludes.
Snubbed invitations and cancellations
While the tradition of the visit and the prospect of meeting the president excite some athletes, others have felt their time was better spent elsewhere. But until recently, only about two dozen players have skipped the trek to Washington for personal or political reasons, according to the Associated Press.
New England Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower skipped his team’s visits in 2015 and 2017 because he had already been to the White House as a player for the University of Alabama. Michael Jordan skipped the trip to see George H.W. Bush with the 1991 Chicago Bulls, saying that he wanted to spend the time with his family. In 2013, Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk opted out of the visit because he disagreed with President Barack Obama’s support of Planned Parenthood.
Since Trump became president, there has been a spectrum of reactions from championship teams. The Chicago Cubs had separate visits with both Obama and Trump after their 2016 World Series win, and all members of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 2017 Stanley Cup-winning team accepted their invitation.
When the Patriots were set to go to D.C. after their 2017 Super Bowl victory, six players chose not to attend, with four of them stating either disapproval of Trump or not feeling welcome at the White House as the reason.
The Eagles are the second team to have a White House invitation rescinded by Trump. The president also uninvited the 2017 NBA championship winners, the Golden State Warriors, due to what Trump called hesitation from team member Steph Curry. Cancellations aren’t unprecedented, but are usually due to an unexpected event requiring the president’s attention, such as the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, which kept the Super Bowl champions Chicago Bears from their visit.
Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
With the NBA finals set to conclude later this month, the winners will have to decide whether to skip the visit in protest or carry out what’s now become a tradition of champions. It’s not looking promising.