The customary White House visit for sports champions has become especially fraught since Trump was elected, with some athletes saying they would reject an invitation for political reasons. The issue was stark on Wednesday, when a relatively small contingent of Patriots players flanked the president.
A Patriots spokesman, Stacey James, said Wednesday night that 34 players had attended, similar to the turnout when President George W. Bush hosted them in 2004 and 2005. He said that more than 45 players attended the ceremonies in 2002, after the franchise’s first Super Bowl, and that in 2015, when Barack Obama was president, the number of players approached 50.
James said that one reason substantially fewer players showed up this time as compared to 2015 was that some veteran players did not see the need to go twice in three years.
James said, however, that the size of the Patriots’ full delegation for each trip to the White House has been roughly the same. Some photos of the ceremonies include support staff, he said, making the turnout appear bigger. That, he said, was the case in 2015.
The White House did not immediately respond to an email inquiring about Wednesday’s turnout.
Quarterback Tom Brady was among those who did not attend Wednesday’s ceremony, citing family matters. Trump did not mention Brady, the Super Bowl’s most valuable player,during the ceremony. Brady had been spotted in 2015 with one of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hats in his locker.
The visit to the White House came the same day that a former Patriot, Aaron Hernandez, hanged himself in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
During the ceremony, Trump heaped praise on the Patriots — “No team has been this good for this long.” He also could not resist making allusions to his campaign.
“With your backs against the wall, and the pundits — good old pundits, boy, they’re wrong a lot, aren’t they? — saying you couldn’t do it, the game was over, you pulled off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time.”
Trump also thanked Coach Bill Belichick for writing a letter before the election praising him.
“Whether you’re trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as Coach Belichick would say, ‘There are no days off.’ ”
Trump was presented with the usual ceremonial jersey, with the No. 45 and “Trump” on the back, as well as a helmet.
Did Not Attend
Brady was the most prominent Patriot absent on Wednesday. He also skipped his team’s visit with Obama, also citing family issues.
Other Patriots who announced ahead of time that they were not going to the White House included running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Dont’a Hightower, tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Devin McCourty.
BLOUNT in a radio interview on “The Rich Eisen Show,” said, “I just don’t feel welcome in that house.”
BENNETT told reporters after the Super Bowl: “It is what it is. People know how I feel about it. Just follow me on Twitter.” The outspoken Bennett had joked that he might move to outer space after Donald J. Trump was elected.
MCCOURTY, a team captain, told Time magazine: “Basic reason for me is I don’t feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t.”
Both Bennett and McCourty last fall raised their fists in protest during the national anthem for one game. At the time, athletes in various sports were protesting racial oppression in the country.
BRANCH told The Boston Globe that he was skipping the event because he was disturbed by Trump’s sexist comments captured in an “Access Hollywood” video.
HIGHTOWER told ESPN, “Been there, done that,” having visited with a championship Alabama team.
AMENDOLA meanwhile, thanked Trump “for the shout out” and said he had a funeral to attend.
Ties to Trump
Perhaps no other N.F.L. team has as close an association with Trump as the Patriots.
Just before the election, Trump claimed that he had the support of Brady and Coach Bill Belichick. Brady never explicitly endorsed Trump, but they have socialized. And there was the letter that Belichick wrote.
At a rally in New Hampshire just before the election, Trump quoted Brady: “‘Donald, I support you, you’re my friend and I voted for you.” But Brady’s wife, Gisele Bündchen, denied they were Trump supporters.
Meanwhile, disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday showed that the Patriots’ owner, Robert K. Kraft, contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration festivities. The two men are close friends and have appeared side by side frequently since Trump took office.
Other athletes have skipped the trip over the years, many for personal reasons, but others with politics as the explicit motive.
Kraft was dismissive of news media interest in the players’ not attending this year’s ceremony, telling the “Today” show:
“It’s interesting, this is our fifth Super Bowl in the last 16 years, and every time we’ve had the privilege of going to the White House, a dozen of our players don’t go. This is the first time it’s gotten any media attention.
“This is America; we’re all free to do whatever’s best for us. We’re just privileged to be in a position to be going.”
Bruins goalie Tim Thomas declined to visit the Obama White House in 2012, saying in a statement: “I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people.” Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk cited his opposition to abortion as the reason for skipping a 2013 visit.
Presidents for years have invited sports figures to the White House, but the tradition of honoring championships teams there solidified under Ronald Reagan.
|The New England Patriots visiting the White House and President Trump on Wednesday. Credit Al Drago/The New York Times|
Tom Brady skips WH visit, cites 'family matters'
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady won't accompany his teammates to the White House Wednesday, where the Super Bowl champions are set to be honored by President Donald Trump.
Brady cited "personal family matters" as his reason for skipping the ceremony.
"I am so happy and excited that our team is being honored at the White House today," Brady said in a statement provided by the team to CNN. "Our team has accomplished something very special that we are all proud of and will be for years to come. Thank you to the President for hosting this honorary celebration and for supporting our team for as long as I can remember. In light of some recent developments, I am unable to attend today's ceremony, as I am attending to some personal family matters. Hopefully, if we accomplish the goal of winning a championship in the future years, we will back on the South Lawn again soon. Have a great day!"
Brady did not provide further details as to why he was not attending. According to Bleacher Report, Brady's mother has been fighting cancer and was unable to attend any of her son's games during the 2016 season, though she was at the Super Bowl. The Boston Herald, citing sources close to the quarterback, reported that Brady is choosing to spend time Wednesday with her.
His decision also comes hours after former teammate Aaron Hernandez, who was serving a life sentence for first-degree murder, was found hanged in his jail cell.
The Patriots declined further comment. Messages left with Brady's agent and the White House were not immediately returned.
Several members of the Super Bowl-winning team -- including defensive end Chris Long, running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive back Devin McCourty and tight end Martellus Bennett -- also have announced that they won't be visiting the White House. Several players explicitly cited their opposition to Trump as their reason for not attending.
While Super Bowl champions have skipped the White House visit in recent years -- including Brady, who cited scheduling conflicts in 2015 -- all eyes were on the Patriots this year, who are in a particularity notable position because they have been linked to Trump in the past.
The President is a big fan and a friend of Brady's. Trump also has been close over the years with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and head coach Bill Belichick.
Brady, who faced controversy during the 2016 election when a "Make America Great Again" hat was spotted in his locker, has been evasive when asked about Trump, keeping his comments non-political. His wife, Gisele Bundchen, flatly told a user on social media "NO!" shortly before the election when asked if she and her husband were supporting Trump.
Asked in February about his teammates' decision to snub Trump's invitation, Brady said "everybody has their own choice." He added that the tradition of Super Bowl champs visiting the White House each year "never really was a political thing" for him.
Why others are skipping
Bennett was the first to reveal his plans to skip, announcing his decision to reporters following the Patriots' Super Bowl win.
Bennett is an outspoken supporter of the "Black Lives Matter" movement and has used his social media platforms to criticize Trump and speak out on social issues.
After former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat during the national anthem to protest racism in America last year, Bennett participated in a similar protest on the field, raising his fist with McCourty during the national anthem at a September game.
McCourty and Long, who is now a free agent and won't be playing for the Patriots next season, released a joint video on social media called "Standing Pats" Friday elaborating on their decision to skip the visit.
"When my son grows up -- and I believe the legacy of our president is going to be what it is -- I don't want him to say, 'Hey dad, why'd you go when you knew the right thing was to not go,'" Long says in the video.
Blount voiced a similar concern, telling NFL Network's Rich Eisen in February, "I will NOT be going to the White House. I don't feel welcome in that house. I'll leave it at that."
And Branch, who visited the White House in 2014 when President Barack Obama was in office, said he is going to "hang out with the family" instead.
Hightower, who also skipped the visit in 2014, told ESPN's Mike Reiss in February that he's "been there, done that."