In the summer of 2005, the Northwestern University women’s lacrosse team visited the White House to celebrate a national championship with President George W. Bush. Worried the players might sink into the South Lawn, a staffer told them not to wear high heels, so instead many wore flip-flops. A photo of the players with Bush-their footwear visible-was released, and scandal ensued. “It mortified me,” said one of the players’ mothers, aghast at the impropriety. NBC News called the incident a “flip-flop kerfuffle.”
The Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles were scheduled to visit the White House Tuesday but were abruptly disinvited by President Donald Trump late Monday night after he learned the delegation of players would be considerably skimpier than expected. “They disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the National Anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country,” blared an official White House statement.
Oh, for the halcyon days of the flip-flop kerfuffle.
The Eagles, of course, are just the latest championship team to cross swords with the President over a White House invitation, a once feel-good tradition dating back nearly a century that has, over the past 16 months, become a handy test of allegiance in the nation’s culture wars. Last year, several New England Patriots released a video announcing their reasons for passing on Trump’s party (Tom Brady, a Trump favorite, was a late scratch, too). The Golden State Warriors, whose coach Steve Kerr has been one of the president’s loudest critics, never even got an invite. The NCAA champion South Carolina women’s basketball team declined to visit, as did the North Carolina men. Seemingly every American championship team now gets the loaded question: Will it show up at Trump’s White House?
The Washington Senators were the first championship team to be feted at the White House, 11 months after they won the 1924 World Series. A flood of letters from Washington fans convinced Calvin Coolidge to issue the invitation, the beginning of the mingling of sports heroes and Presidents. It has been a mostly cheerful and anodyne affair since, providing fluffy fodder for the hometown paper (and later the nightly television newscast). For decades, it really wasn’t that big of a deal. Some presidents, especially those who fancied themselves sports fans, really got into the spirit, and others did it with a smile on their face and their minds probably on something weightier waiting on their Oval Office desk.
“They were the best days to work at the White House,” former Reagan staffer Mark Weinberg told me. “There was no politics, no messages, no alternate agendas. It was a great day for the President, for the teams, for the fans.”
In fact, it was Ronald Reagan, who played Notre Dame football great George Gipp in the movies, who turned the team visit into both a media spectacle and an institutionalized tradition. In one memorable visit by the Super Bowl champion Giants, a linebacker dumped a bucket of popcorn over his head to imitate the shower of water that winning coaches often get on the sideline. The next year, Reagan tossed a pass on the White House lawn to a Redskins player.
The photo-ops were political gold, then and now. “The local news clips are incredible publicity,” said Kyle Lierman, who planned the team visits for the Obama White House. “And you get on ESPN and Bleacher Report, too.”
Andrew Johnson, such a baseball fan that he used to give government employees time off to attend games, was actually the first president to offer an invitation to an organized team-back in 1865 to the Brooklyn Atlantics. But the idea of whole teams traveling to Washington didn’t catch on for another century. In 1963, John F. Kennedy invited his hometown NBA champion Boston Celtics to the White house. Gerald Ford hosted the Indiana University basketball team in 1976. Four years later, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates palled around with Jimmy Carter.
Everything changed with Reagan. According to Weinberg, who worked in the White House for all eight years of his administration, the idea came straight from the President. “It was a way of paying tribute,” he said. “It was a way of telling the players that their country respected them and honored what they did.” Weinberg added: “It never hurts to surround the President with champions, either.”
Reagan was an avid sports fan and showed it. He once helicoptered out to Dulles Airport to welcome the Super Bowl champion Redskins back to town and issued the famous “Gentleman, Start Your Engines” line at the Daytona 500, from above the race track in Air Force Once.
Among the teams the teams that made pilgrimages to Reagan’s White House: baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers, the New York Mets and Yankees, Kansas City Royals and Minnesota Twins; the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers; and hockey’s New York Islanders. “The President looked forward to those days as much as the staff,” Weinberg said. “He loved those meetings in the Oval Office.” Weinberg recalled Steve Sax, a member of the Dodgers, once delivering a perfect impression of Reagan right to his face.
There was some politics mixed in through the years. After the Chicago Bulls won the 1992 championship, Craig Hodges dressed in a dashiki and brought an eight-page letter with him, asking the first President Bush to do more to help black communities. When the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl in 2001, their star linebacker, Ray Lewis, was under investigation in a murder case. The Secret Service suggested to the White House that perhaps Lewis not be invited to the celebration at the White House, but ultimately he was. Mostly, though, the biggest concern for staffers was that a president get too excited. “We’d have conversations about what if someone gives him a basketball and he tried to shoot it,” said Doug Wead, a staffer for George H.W. Bush. “But, really, these were harmless events.”
Even before Trump, politics had begun to creep into the championship shindigs. Tim Thomas, the goaltender for the Boston Bruins, passed on a visit to Obama’s White House in 2012 and released a statement reading, “I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People.” The rest of his teammates, if they shared his opinion didn’t let it keep them from lining up behind the president. And the White House issued no press releases about the absence of the team’s goalie. The next year, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk skipped a trip to D.C., citing Obama’s support of Planned Parenthood.
But the drip has become a geyser in this new era of Trumpian politics, where cultural fissures have been probed and plumbed and squeezed until they burst. And while there have been plenty of teams that have visited Trump-from Clemson and Alabama football to the Houston Astros-many of the people I spoke to were concerned about the future of presidents hosting athletes.
“It’s a wonderful tradition that seems in jeopardy,” Weinberg, the Reagan aide, said. Added the presidential historian Robert Dallek: “It’s the least political thing a president does, inviting a popular team, a championship team to the White House. You think you’d never see anything like it, but this President turns it into a scandal.”
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