WASHINGTON — A presidential tradition took place at the White House on Wednesday. The Patriots made their fifth visit to Washington since 2002, this time after a 25-point comeback Super Bowl win over the Falcons. This was supposed to be a party, a celebration of American sports champions. But it turned out to be as awkward as an office mixer.
Of the 68 Patriots players invited, only half of them showed up. The contingent was much smaller than the last time they visited in 2015, when 50 players showed up to shake hands with President Barack Obama.
The sparse grouping of players clapped when Trump congratulated them. The president pointed wildly toward the athletes looking for Danny Amendola, only to discover that the receiver didn’t attend.
“Way to go, Danny,” Trump said.
Trump made fun of pundits who mocked the team for being down to the Falcons, saying, “boy they’re wrong a lot aren’t they?” He referenced the Patriots’ decision to go “for three,” and Robert Kraft protruded his jaw and gave a look of confusion.
When Trump asked if coach Bill Belichick was “tough,” the team gave a smattering of applause. The speech wasn’t as jovial as when Obama joked about Deflategate. The biggest applause of the afternoon was a cheer from the guests gathered because Belichick shouted them out.
This was President Donald Trump’s first opportunity to welcome a title-winning team to the White House and given his divisive tenure so far — the many athletes who have publicly opposed Trump, and the Pats’ cozy relationship with the nation’s leader — there were lots of reasons to expect that this wouldn’t be the standard photo op.
For one, Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady declined to attend, citing “family matters.” That killed scrutiny of the QB’s relationship with Trump, which had trailed Brady ever since media reported on the Make America Great Again hat in his locker at the start of the 2015 season.
But Brady’s absence didn’t stop the uncomfortable feeling of the event. Usually the president recounts anecdotes linking them or their staff to the champions (think Obama’s Cubs jokes or George W. Bush’s pokes at the Naval Academy football team). Trump went into great detail about the campaign trail favor Belichick did for him.
“He wrote me this beautiful letter after the primaries,” Trump said about the now-famous letter coach Belichick sent him during the election season. “I called up, and I said, ‘Coach, do you mind if I read the letter tonight to a stadium full of people in a very, very big and important state?’ And he said, ‘You know what? I’d rather not have you do that. Could you send it back to me? I’m going to give you another one.’
“I said, ‘no that’s okay.’ ‘Nope, I want to give you another one.’ Now, immediately to me, that means he’s going to tone it down because what he said was so nice. And you know what he did? He toned it way up. It was much better. It was much better. He made that the greatest letter, and I did very well in that state. Thank you, Coach. That was very good.”
The decision to show up for the Washington reception this year has been more polarizing than years past. Six Patriots said outright before April that they wouldn’t accept this year’s invitation because they don’t support the Trump administration.
“America was built on inclusiveness, not exclusiveness,” tight end Martellus Bennett tweeted in January.
“I'm not going to the White House," safety Devin McCourty told TIME. "Basic reason for me is I don't feel accepted in the White House.”
The reason that some players don’t feel “accepted” in the White House may stem from Trump’s pattern of racist business practices and politics, and his refusal to disavow campaign support from hate groups. Patriots players of different races — from Brady and Amendola to Bennett and LeGarrette Blount — declined to show up citing a variety of reasons. One player had a surgery scheduled for his dog. Another mixed up a few dates and didn’t want to miss a family gathering. Logan Ryan, a corner, was too busy moving to Tennessee. Bennett opted to appear on Chelsea Handler’s live show.
“Fundamentally, we don’t match up,” Bennett said about Trump. “Some people’s house, I just don’t want to go to.”
Their absences muted the occasion. The players who did come celebrated an all-time great win with their bosses and a fraction of their teammates. Reporters who flew in to watch wandered around campus grounds aimlessly looking for something to do. Rob Gronkowski’s unannounced drop-in on noted Pats fan Sean Spicer stole the day but, beyond that, business ticked away as usual.
“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,” Kraft told the Today Show.
“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.”
Going to the White House is an honor and a privilege, which is why fans have been critical of players who have decided to skip the opportunity. If the leader of the free world wants to make time to celebrate a team’s accomplishments, not going is often seen as a slight to the country’s highest office, not to the man who holds the job. That criticism adds more pressure on players to attend, even if they may disagree with the administration.
And yet, some players, like rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell, didn’t think twice about the context of the day. He was just excited to be on presidential grounds.
“Malcolm, some players chose not to be here today, citing political reasons. Did you ever consider not coming?” a reporter asked.
“I’ve never been to the White House. This is my first opportunity to have that,” Mitchell said. “So for me, personally, I wanted to visit.”