The Kansas City Chiefs won the Super Bowl. Now it’s time for them to partake in all the usual celebrations: a victory parade in Kansas City and a $200,000 bonus for each player rounds out their year of hard work. But, there is one other tradition the Chiefs’ players and coaches will have to decide on, one that has become controversial in the past few years: taking a visit to the White House.
Champions from a range of leagues, including the NBA, NHL, MLB, NFL, WNBA, NCAA Football and Basketball, are customarily invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. For quite a while, no team thought twice about this tradition, whether the president be a Democrat or a Republican. But ever since Donald Trump took the oath, the normal has become the controversial—and political (who would have thought?). Now, if a championship team gets invited to the White House (“if,” because nowadays some of them don’t get invited) the team tends to be split on the decision, with some players choosing to go and others refusing. To go or not to go: either act is a political statement.
Oftentimes the winning team will accept the invitation, but a big star refuses to join their teammates. Star goalie Braden Holtby was absent from the Washington Capitals’ 2018 visit, saying he “wished to stay true to his values,” as was MLB MVP Mookie Betts when the Red Sox attended in the same year. The Red Sox’s manager at the time, Alex Cora, also declined to attend, saying he “[did] not feel comfortable celebrating in the White House.” There have also been instances where whole teams have outright refused to go, such as the 2017 Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles and the 2017 NCAA Men’s Basketball Champion UNC Tar Heels. Other teams have accepted the invitation without much criticism of the President; Alabama Head Coach Nick Saban even required his team to go, saying, “Hey, we’re doing this regardless of your political thoughts” (Business Insider, “Championship teams visiting the White House has become a mess,” 06.26.2019).
A team that is a great example of the divide between teammates is the 2019 World Series Champion Washington Nationals. This team plays in the nation’s capital; and when Trump attended Game 5 of the World Series in DC, he was met by a chorus of boos and “lock him up” chants from the crowd (The Guardian, “Washington Nationals players support and thank Trump during White House Visit,” 11.04.2019). The Nationals’ star relief pitcher and vocal team leader Sean Doolittle stated, “As much as I want to be there with my teammates, I just can’t do it,” and said Trump’s “divisive rhetoric and enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide of this country. My wife and I stand for inclusion and acceptance” (Washington Post, “Sean Doolittle on Declining White House Invite,” 11.02.2019). But, some of Doolittle’s teammates, like beloved longtime National Ryan Zimmerman, felt differently. Zimmerman stood in front of the White House and said, “This is an incredible honor…we’d also like to thank you for keeping everyone here safe in our country, and continuing to make America the greatest country in the world to live in” (The Guardian, “Washington Nationals players support and thank Trump during White House Visit,” 11.04.2019).
Trump will also use a team’s visit as a political statement. There have been quite a few instances where he didn’t invite teams because of the criticism of him by some players. For instance, star captain Megan Rapinoe of the 2019 World Cup Champion US Women’s National Soccer Team said, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” Trump then proceded to fire back on twitter, and broke precedent by withholding a White House invitation to the team. (Bleacher Report, “I’m not going to the f***ing White House,” 06.26.2019). When the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Championship, Trump did not extend them an honor. During their next road trip to DC for a game, they visited with former President Barack Obama instead (Business Insider, “Championship teams visiting the White House has become a mess,” 06.26.2019).
And now it is the Kansas City Chiefs’ turn to divide themselves and their fans based on who decides to go and who doesn’t, reminding us of how intertwined culture, specifically sports culture, is with broader political life. Star athletes in America have recognized the attention they garner and
thus have begun to use their platforms to express their opinions. Whether this reflects the increased political polarization of our era or a broader transformation in celebrity culture, these players are heard all over the country, serving as influencers in their spheres. Many players avoid speaking out for fear of being reprimanded or disliked, but many others have made powerful political statements. Who could forget Tommie Smith and John Carlos protesting at the Olympics? Or Ali speaking out against Vietnam? Or Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball? When athletes realize the power of their voice they must choose whether or not to use it, and what to use it for. There is no longer the choice of a “just stick to sports” mentality. Star athletes in this country have harnessed their influence, and any move they make will be political.