The Boston Red Sox are scheduled to appear at the White House on Thursday afternoon to celebrate last season’s World Series win. At least, some Red Sox are. The team’s manager, Alex Cora, has said he would not attend the event, in part because of the government’s handling of the Hurricane Maria relief effort in his native Puerto Rico. Nine players, all people of color, joined Cora, leaving a mostly white contingent to represent the franchise.
Visits to the White House by championship teams were once seen as a relatively low-stakes tradition. Some notable athletes did decline invitations during the Barack Obama and George W. Bush administrations, but the visits have evolved into a political test of sorts under President Donald Trump. No sport has been left untouched by the president, who targeted football players who knelt in protest during the national anthem during his 2016 campaign and has since feuded openly with some of the country’s best athletes.
The results of those disputes—and the president’s immigration policies, sexually predatory comments, tolerant behavior toward white supremacists, lackluster response to tragedy in Puerto Rico, divisive partisan behavior, and countless racist remarks—can be seen in the mixed record of attendance by pro and college champions over the last two years. Who still goes to the White House when they win a title? And who skips in protest—or never gets invited at all?
The Super Bowl
The New England Patriots, 2017: accepted invitation; mixed attendance
While this Trump-friendly team ignited less controversy than others, its star player, quarterback Tom Brady, skipped the White House appearance, possibly because of criticism he faced after a MAGA hat was spotted in his locker in 2015. A personal friend of Trump’s, Brady said he had preexisting plans. A number of other players also declined to attend, including at least four who said they didn’t feel welcome at the White House or who protested for other political reasons. Defensive tackle Alan Branch, for example, cited Trump’s comments in the Access Hollywood tape.
The Philadelphia Eagles, 2018: (mostly) declined invitation; invitation rescinded
The conflict between Trump and the Eagles began right after the team won the Super Bowl. “If you want to meet to talk about advancing our communities, changing our countries, I am all for that,” Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins said when asked if he would go if invited. Wide receiver Torrey Smith piled on: “If I told you that I was invited to a party by an individual I believe is sexist or has no respect for women, or I told you that this individual has said offensive things toward many minority groups, you would understand why I wouldn’t want to go to that party.” The White House announced an invitation to the team but the timing was poor, coming just a few days before the NFL ruled that teams could be fined if their players knelt during the national anthem. Trump, in agreement with the policy, said of any players who remained in their locker rooms during the song: “maybe you shouldn’t be in the country.” A number of players, led by defensive end Chris Long, cried out against the suppression of their free speech. (None of the Eagles had knelt in protest during the season.) The players began declaring their intentions not to visit the White House out of protest, until only a few remained on the official invite list. Eventually, the team asked the White House to reschedule, but Trump promptly disinvited the team and Sarah Huckabee Sanders blasted the Eagles for the “political stunt.” Trump held a celebratory event anyway, in which he never once mentioned the Eagles but instead denounced football players who knelt during the national anthem.
The New England Patriots, 2019: not yet scheduled
This celebration has not been scheduled, but there’s already talk of the awkwardness to come. Trump has said he wants the team’s owner (and Trump’s personal friend), Robert Kraft, to join his players at the celebration, despite Kraft’s recent arrest in a Florida prostitution sting. At least three players have said they plan not to go if invited.
The CFP National Championship
The Clemson Tigers, 2017: accepted invitation
Most of the players were present for the celebration. It was an uneventful visit.
The Alabama Crimson Tide, 2018: accepted invitation
There was no major dust-up during this visit, either. It was reported that coach Nick Saban quashed any thought of boycotts and told his team to accept the invitation as an “honor” regardless of “your political thoughts.”
The Clemson Tigers, 2019: accepted Invitation; mixed attendance
A majority of the team’s black players stayed home after this national title, later saying that they had done so because of Trump’s racism and divisive politics. (“They told us it was up to us,” one player said. “Folk just didn’t want to go.”) But the visit made headlines for the food: The White House eschewed more traditional foods offered to honorees in favor of a buffet of McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Domino’s Pizza. The president partially blamed the government shutdown for the spread, but he has since repeated the display for other athletes.
The NBA Finals
The Golden State Warriors, 2017: invitation withdrawn
At a time when Trump was at odds with the NFL over players kneeling during the national anthem in protest of racial disparities, the nation’s best basketball players were becoming more vocal in their opposition to the president (see: LeBron James calling Trump a “bum”). Warriors star Steph Curry led some of his teammates in opposing the president when he publicly said he would decline a visit in order to send a message that the team doesn’t “stand for” Trump’s values and actions. Warriors coach Steve Kerr also said he would prefer not to attend a White House event with Trump. The Warriors were expected to vote to decline the White House’s offer, but Trump preempted the vote by withdrawing the invitation.
The Golden State Warriors, 2018: not invited
Trump, not one to abandon a grudge, did not invite the Warriors when they won the next year. So instead, the team spent the day with local children at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington.
The WNBA Finals
The Minnesota Lynx, 2017: not invited
The Lynx, who had just won their fourth championship in seven seasons, never received an invitation to the White House. More than six months after their championship win and with no invitation, Lynx coach–general manager Cheryl Reeve told reporters in May 2018 that she believed the lack of an invitation was a reflection of sexism in the administration. “It’s hard not to think that gender is playing a role here because of the consistency with which men’s teams are being invited and celebrated,” she said. “I think it reflects the priorities of this particular administration.” She pointed to the warmer welcome the team received from Obama, having received congratulatory phone calls and invitations to the White House days after their championship wins in 2011, 2013 and 2015. “President Obama sort of spoiled us in terms of establishing this expectation to be recognized,” she said. The team instead used a trip to Washington to hand out shoes to local children as part of a day of service.
The Seattle Storm, 2018: not invited
Trump also failed to invite the next year’s WNBA champions to the White House, but the Storm made it clear that they had no interest anyway. Team star Sue Bird told reporters, “At this point, it doesn’t even really need to be discussed.” She added: “I’m sure [Trump] is going to say we’re not invited anyway, so it all works out well.”
The NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship
The North Carolina Tar Heels, 2017: not invited (scheduling conflicts)
Just after Steph Curry declared he would not visit the White House, UNC men’s basketball made a similar announcement, but apparently not because of Trump. According to a spokesman for the men’s team, the White House and the university couldn’t agree on a date, even after trying “about eight or nine dates.” The team’s coach, Roy Williams, once did tweet critically of Trump (“you know, our president tweets out more bulls**t than anybody I’ve ever seen”), but a team spokesman said the players were “fine with going.”
The Villanova Wildcats, 2018: not invited
The team never went fully on record what it would do if invited to the White House, but the question eventually became moot when, eight months after the championship, the team’s coach, Jay Wright, told Reuters that even if his team were invited now, it would be nearly impossible to round everyone up, given that so many athletes and staff had moved on. It didn’t matter: The Trump administration never sent the invite. “It’s just a different time, and I understand it,” Wright said, comparing the situation to their previous visit to the Obama White House, which he called “the experience of a lifetime.” He concluded: “So it is what it is.”
The Virginia Cavaliers, 2019: declined invitation or not invited
The UVA team was under greater pressure than most college teams, given the political spotlight placed on Charlottesville and the still-open wounds from the “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally there in 2017. More than 15,000 people (many of whom were students) signed a petition urging the team “to skip the White House visit in protest of Trump and his support of white supremacy.” The team’s coach announced his team would decline an invitation, making a dubious excuse about the logistics of gathering for a visit. While it wasn’t clear whether an invitation had been extended or not, several players took the opportunity to celebrate the decision as a political statement.
The NCAA Women’s Division I Basketball Championship
The South Carolina Gamecocks, 2017: invited to group celebration; declined invitation
In the weeks after her team won, coach Dawn Staley said the Gamecocks would visit “because it’s what national champions do.” But as time stretched on without word from the White House—and as other championship teams who competed after them received invitations—Staley became less sure of that decision, eventually telling the AP that the lack of an invite “speaks volumes.” When the White House invited the Gamecocks to participate in a NCAA Champions Day—an event Trump held in 2017 for champions of college sports other than football and men’s basketball—the team declined, but Staley said the decision was a matter of scheduling conflicts on a day when the team needed to practice, not politics. Both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama regularly invited women’s teams, including college women’s basketball teams, for individual celebrations at the White House.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish, 2018: not invited
Trump did not invite the Notre Dame team to the White House. The oversight (or snub, depending on interpretation), caused some to speculate that the White House was favoring men’s sports. (The fact that Trump hosted a lower-level division college football champion—the North Dakota State Bison—and was the first president to do so since 1995 further infuriated some who saw him as ignoring women’s teams.)
The Baylor Lady Bears, 2019: accepted invitation
Baylor’s team became the first women’s championship team to make a solo visit to the Trump White House, two and a half years into Trump’s presidency. As with Clemson, the Bears were served McDonald’s, Chick-fil-A, and Wendy’s—marking, apparently, a new tradition. Coach Kim Mulkey pronounced that the decision was not political and bragged that her team had visited the White House during the past three presidencies.
The World Series
The Chicago Cubs, 2016: accepted invitation (unofficial visit); mixed attendance
Technically, the Cubs met with two different administrations to celebrate its World Series win. Obama, who began his career in Chicago, accelerated the plans to have the team visit the White House so he could host it himself just before his term expired. Five months later, a smaller contingent returned to the White House while on a visit to D.C. to play the Washington Nationals. The group had a photo op with Trump in an “unofficial visit” organized by Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts, a major Trump supporter who will oversee fundraising for Trump’s re-election campaign. The visit, early in Trump’s presidency, saw some players stay away, apparently in protest.
The Houston Astros, 2017: accepted invitation; mixed attendance
The Astros visited the White House five months after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, at a time when the island was still suffering from power outages, devastation to its infrastructure, and widespread health problems. All-Star shortstop Carlos Correa, who hails from Puerto Rico, stayed home, citing a “family obligation.” The now-retired outfielder–designated hitter Carlos Beltran also skipped the visit, telling reporters that it was not because of Trump specifically but because of the government’s response to the hurricane.
The Boston Red Sox, 2018: accepted invitation; planned absences
Cora, the team’s manager, said in a written statement to the Puerto Rican newspaper El Nuevo Dia that his decision not to join his team on Thursday was about Hurricane Maria. “Even though the United States Government has helped, there’s still a long road ahead,” he wrote. “As such, at this moment, I don’t feel comfortable celebrating in the White House.” Red Sox players Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez, Xander Bogaerts, Sandy Leon, Eduardo Nunez, David Price, and Rafael Devers have also said they will not be attending the trip. (They did not explicitly give any political reasons.) Relief pitcher Hector Velazquez said he would stay away because he “would rather not offend anyone” in his native Mexico.
Collegiate National Champions Day
On Nov. 17, 2017, Trump hosted 18 NCAA champion teams for a catchall celebration for everything except football and men’s basketball, which were to have their own celebrations. Each of the invited teams attended, except the South Carolina women’s basketball team. Those that visited were Texas A&M’s women’s equestrian team, Texas A&M’s men’s indoor track and field team, Penn State’s men’s wrestling team, Penn State’s women’s rugby team, Maryland’s men’s lacrosse team, Maryland’s women’s lacrosse team, Washington’s women’s rowing team, Ohio State’s men’s volleyball team, Oklahoma’s men’s golf team, Oklahoma’s women’s softball team, Oklahoma’s women’s gymnastics team, Oklahoma’s men’s gymnastics team, McKendree’s women’s bowling team, West Virginia’s co-ed rifle team, Virginia’s men’s tennis team, Florida’s men’s baseball team, Arizona State’s women’s triathlon teams, and Utah’s skiing team.
The Stanley Cup
The Pittsburgh Penguins, 2017: accepted invitation
When the Penguins visited the White House, they insisted there was nothing political about it. “Nobody’s choosing a side,” said head coach Mike Sullivan.
The Washington Capitals, 2018: accepted invitation; mixed attendance
After a significant delay into the start of the following season, all Capitals players still on the team and eligible to attend, except for star goalie Braden Holtby and forward Brett Connolly, showed up for their visit at the White House. Holtby, a Canadian, said he chose not to attend in order “to stay true to my values,” in part because of his support for the LGBTQ community. Other Caps players from the 2018 team said they would not attend. Devante Smith-Pelly, now with the minor league Hershey Bears, said he would not visit because of Trump’s rhetoric. “The things that he spews are straight-up racist and sexist,” he said. “Some of the things he’s said are pretty gross.”
Given the demographics of its fan base, NASCAR has experienced the near-inverse of other sports. During the Obama administration, drivers Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Burton both felt they had to defend their decisions to go to the White House. Four other drivers—Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, and Tony Stewart—all declined Obama’s invitation, though several insisted it was not for political reasons and that they would have been honored to visit the White House. Johnson declined Trump’s invitation during the first year of his presidency (citing scheduling issues), but the two other drivers invited during this presidency—Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano—made visits to the Trump White House with no sign of controversy.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom
Trump awarded Tiger Woods the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the highest civilian honors, on Monday, calling the golfer “one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports.” Woods has been both a golf buddy and a business partner with Trump, and the president showered praise on the golfer, who has made a remarkable comeback this year after winning the Masters. To minimize controversy, Woods has emphasized in interviews that his friendship with Trump precedes his campaign and presidency.