Martellus Bennett is not the first player to do this, and in an era of social statements, he most certainly will not be the last.
But the New England Patriots tight end may very well be the most important player to diss the tradition of the championship visit to the White House, serving as a loud reminder to all athletes that they, too, can skip the D.C. sojourn over the next four years.
This is Donald Trump’s presidential term, yes, but this is not a nation under autocracy and, as nightmarish as things may seem, it is not solely Trump’s America. Bennett and teammate Devin McCourty, Americans who have issues with Trump, can do as they please, with no need to fulfill some overrated obligation to hang out on Pennsylvania Ave. McCourty even told Time Magazine that he wouldn’t feel “accepted” at the White House.
And Bennett, the first to blow off this President, does so aiming to empower, reminding that even if Trump’s regime robs minorities of freedom and opportunities, African-Americans — and Bennett — don’t need to play society’s game of prejudice and stereotyping.
“I will not get inside the box society provides for everyone at birth,” he tweeted Tuesday night.
So the 6-foot-6, 275-pound tight end who moonlights as an offseason author won’t go visit Trump because he doesn’t need to. Bennett and McCourty follow in the footsteps of a long line of athletes of many shades and political affiliations. The narrative of this era suggests that Bennett and McCourty, both African-American, be compared to Trump BFF Tom Brady, who passed on Barack Obama’s invite after he’d won his fourth Super Bowl in 2015, citing something “personal,” which apparently meant working out in Foxborough and hanging out at an Apple Store.
But while Brady drew scant criticism two years ago, Bennett and McCourty have taken heat this week. And the negative reactions to Bennett’s decision have racial undertones for a society that’s long expected black athletes to show appreciation for their success. Colin Kaepernick was ostracized for failing to show patriotism during the national anthem, and Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was attacked for failing to place her hand over her heart during the anthem while in Rio.
Thing is, the White House visit isn’t about patriotism, and before Bennett and McCourty and even Brady, a litany of athletes have skipped this trip. There was Steelers linebacker James Harrison, an African-American spurning both Obama (in 2009) and George W. Bush (in 2006). Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas in 2012 and Ravens center Matt Birk in 2013, both white, declined to visit Obama for political and religious reasons, respectively. And in 1984, perhaps a less contentious time, NBA champion Larry Bird skipped the Celtics’ visit to Ronald Reagan and joked “if the President wants to see me, he knows where to find me.”
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Unlike Kaepernick’s controversial protest, there are no rules, even unwritten ones, governing the White House visit, and an athletic generation awakened to its power to impact social justice (thank Kaepernick for that) understands this. In the age of Bird and Michael Jordan (who skipped a George H.W. Bush visit in 1991, drawing scorn from the Chicago Tribune), such absences were far less scrutinized, but social media has changed that, creating an atmosphere in which a White House visit can function as an extension of a celebrity’s social media platform.
They also understand that this visit, so hyped on social media, is nothing more than a glorified public relations stunt, Trump’s chance to shake hands and take pictures, with nary a hint of true meaning.
A chance for a minority athlete to have true dialogue or conversation with the president would be a worthwhile reason to visit the White House, an opportunity to explain to Trump, in person, the struggles of minority groups, while simultaneously standing as proof that many of Trump’s assumptions about minorities are incorrect.
But this ceremonial title team visit very likely offers no such conversation. Unless Trump conducts business in radically different fashion than previous presidents, the entire event has value only for Trump, who gets to burnish his image and have his ego stroked by a collection of Patriots who will say it’s an “honor” to be in his presence.
That’s all it’s been under previous administrations, said one former Super Bowl champion player.
“Definitely a photo op,” he said.
And there is no one right way to handle this photo op, especially in the wake of so much divisive (and increasingly baffling) rhetoric from Trump. One former NFL player, an African-American, said he would go because “it’s the pageantry/ceremony that I care about. Nothing to do with the suit.”
Two other former players, both African-American, indicated they would likely go as well, although they left room to reconsider. Meanwhile, late last year, Cavs forward Richard Jefferson and guard Iman Shumpert made it clear last year that they’d both decline White House visits under Trump.
And now Martellus Bennett is reminding all athletes that they don’t have to visit Trump, and reminding the next generation of African-Americans to keep dreaming big, regardless of the rules that come from the White House and societal assumptions based on ethnicity.
“I honestly just want people to look at black kids and not say he’s the next Michael Jordan all the damn time,” Bennett tweeted. “There’s nothing wrong with being an athlete but just know that you can be so much more.”
And it can all be done without some silly presidential photo op. by: Ebenezer Samuel