How Did Athletes Visiting the President at the White House Become a Tradition?

Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Tom Brady are some of the more famous names to snub the commander-in-chief

The Boston Celtics visit JFK in 1963. Credit: Bettmann/Getty

First Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots said they wouldn't make the customary visit to the White House to meet with President Donald Trump after the team won the Super Bowl. Then Dont'a Hightower, the team's all-pro linebacker said he'd already visited the White House after the Pats won a Vince Lombardi Trophy a few years back: "Been there, done that." After that, defensive end Chris Long, son of Hall of Famers Howie Long, added his name to the list of players that won't be able to make it

Of course, the internet having the long memory it does, people were quick to remind fans that were angry about the players snubbing the invite in 2017 were doing exactly what Tom Brady did when Barack Obama was in office just a few years earlier, except at least they were being up front about it. Brady said he couldn't make it because of a "family commitment." 

Players have used not visiting the president as a form of protest before. Most recently, Jake Arrieta skipped a visit the White House recently with the Chicago Cubs in the last days of the Barack Obama presidency, and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins also didn't show up to the White House. Thomas, who identified as a member of the Tea Party, issued a statement saying, "I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties, and Property of the People," but said, "This was not about politics or party, as in my opinion both parties are responsible for the situation we are in as a country. This was about a choice I had to make as an INDIVIDUAL."

But how, exactly, did the tradition of athletes showing up actually start? 

According to Thomas Nuemann of ESPN, it dates back to at least Aug. 30, 1865, when President Andrew Johnson welcomed the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals amateur baseball clubs. Ulysses S. Grant played host to the first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings, in 1869. The first World Series championship team to show up at the White House is believed to be the 1924 Washington Senators, invited by Calvin Coolidge. John F. Kennedy, possibly the Boston area's most famous citizen, invited Red Auerbach and the Celtics to the White House in 1963 when the team was in the middle of the most dominant decade possibly in all of American sports.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were the first Super Bowl champion to visit, joining the World Series-winning Pittsburgh Pirates in a dual ceremony with Jimmy Carter in February of 1980. Over a decade later, another Pittsburgh team, the Penguins, became the first NHL team to visit when George H.W. Bush was in office. 

So when did it become big news when an athlete didn't visit? Maybe 1984, when Larry Bird didn't show for reasons he kept to himself, saying, "If the president wants to see me, he knows where to find me." 

He maybe didn't miss much. As the New York Times reported, "Mr. Reagan mispronounced the names of several Celtics stars of the past, Tom Heinsohn, John Havlicek and Dave Cowens."

Michael Jordan, who in 1991, after the Chicago Bulls first NBA title, decided he wanted to play golf instead of meeting with President George W.H. Bush. Some reporters called it "stupid," but in retrospect, it seems almost quaint, the greatest player on the planet not meeting with the commander-in-chief because he wanted to play some golf. 

Professional teams, college squads or Olympians visiting the president isn't a new thing, although it has really become more of an actual tradition and spectacle in the last few decades. The more sports started to become part of our culture, the more frequent the visits became, until nearly every team who won a trophy was invited to stop by 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The new tradition, however, is waiting to see who might not show up.or now, fans will wait to see if more Patriots decide they have other things to do when the team makes the trip. After that, the big question will be if the team that wins the NBA title will chose to spend the day with the current president