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#pounditThursday, October 1, 2020

Tim Thomas Joins Long List of Athletes to Skip the White House Visit

Many years ago — actually it might have been last week — I was given a piece of sage advice from my parents: Two issues you never bring up in the company of strangers are religion and politics. Seeing as how I have never really been big on creeds or listening to my folks, for that matter, and that I’ve already discussed the former, it’s only naturally that I now write a missive on the latter.

For what it’s worth, I’m not officially announcing my candidacy for public office. Really, though, the only thing that qualifies me for the office of President is the fact that I was born in the US, and even then it’s a stretch. Furthermore, I don’t think any political strategist who attempted to dig up my past would probably be traumatized by what they would find let alone trying to use it against me — tax sheltering and open marriages would be the least of my problems. Which reminds me, I should probably find and destroy that video of me singing Milli Vanilli songs into a shampoo bottle before it’s too late.

Nah, I’m about as cut out to run for President as the boar hog Pigasus that was nominated as a candidate in 1968. Would this now be a bad time to make a joke about pork barrel legislation? (Yeah, too soon.) Certainly, Pigasus would not have been the first candidate to ham it up before a national audience. As entertaining as it may seem to write poorly-conceived puns about swine, I run the risk of getting censured by my Jewish family if I continue without getting to the point.

One thing, though, that I’ve always found an interesting phenomenon about sports and teams that are triumphant on the grandest stage of competition is the reward for reaching the pinnacle. Sure, millions of dollars, adoration from a worldwide fan base, and something called ‘bling’ all have their place. (This is unverified by me since I’ve calculated that anything less than combining one-thousand lifetimes will be deficient in allowing me to experience this.) But, chief among the spoils of victory is getting to meet the President of the United States.

Championship teams have been visiting the White House for close to 90 years. The tradition itself dates back to the days of Calvin Coolidge, who was the US President equivalent of Jim Loscutoff or Will Perdue: good enough to make it to win a spot on the big stage but most people are really not familiar with anything done in particular. Cal makes it into this diatribe since he invited the 1924 Washington Senators to visit Pennsylvania Avenue after their World Series triumph over the New York Giants. This set a tradition of POTUS’s sending out invitations and getting free gear for the better part of a century.

It seems to be a uniquely American tradition. After all, you never really hear about other country’s teams rubbing their hands together at the prospect of visiting Downing Street, the Élysée Palace, or the Kirrabilli House for that matter. In the US, however, everyone from boxers to pro sports teams to collegiate champions have all ventured to the White House for years for a rare chance to get a photo opp with the President, a hearty handshake from the Commander-in-Chief, and even a chance to mention to all those present that an athlete voted for the other guy.

Ask any athlete, and they will probably tell you that the Washington, D.C. visit is probably at the forefront of their experience of winning a championship. Heck, even teams who did not have the privilege of doing so after they won it have found a way to make it into the Oval Office. The 1985 Chicago Bears had their visit postponed until 2010 because of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. By the time Mike Ditka’s team ended up making it into the President’s day planner, the Bears were not doing the Super Bowl Shuffle by choice but only because the ravages of age prevented them from ambling any faster. Quarterback Jim McMahon greeted President Obama donning his trademark sweatband across his forehead. The only problem was that pictorial evidence from the event showed him to look less like the youthful gun-slinger that led the Monsters of the Midway to glory and more like Hans Moleman in ‘Man Getting Hit by Football in Groin’.

Not every athlete is so enamored with the tradition of meeting the head of state. Oftentimes, it is simply a matter of the forces of sports’ black and blue colliding with politics’ red and blue. In September, four different NASCAR drivers cited “scheduling conflicts” as the reason they decided not to make the trek north. I believe that as much as I believe that Honest Abe just winked at me from the five-dollar bill sitting in my wallet (i.e. a sportswriter’s salary).

Former Green Bay Packers tight end Mark Chmura declined to meet Bill Clinton in 1997 because of a golf tournament. Give their respective marital records, perhaps it was for the best. Manny Ramirez skipped out on George W. Bush in 2007. Larry Bird and Michael Jordan both decided to sit out a visit, though they might have simply been tired of making the trip. To show he was not playing any favorites, Steelers linebacker James Harrison turned down a 2006 invitation from Bush, then did the same thing in 2009 under the Obama administration.

This week brought about another snub.

The Boston Bruins’ Tim Thomas took his lumps when he said “no, thanks” to an invitation. He cited his objection on moral grounds, explaining his belief that the government has grown too large and has too much influence on American lives. I usually go around telling people I turned down the White House as well, when in reality no invitation has been extended and probably if anyone over on Capitol Hill read this, I’d be shipped off to Tajikistan.

There have also been awkward moments at these Presidential meetings. Usually, a pro sports team that wins the title makes the visit to the President during an East Coast road trip. There is turnover on the team. So, while some of the players take a picture with POTUS holding a team jersey and signed basketball, the newcomers who were not on the team when the title was won have to stand off to the side, making small talk with staff aides and playing paper football with the interns while their teammates soak in the adulation. Or, you get the rare occasion when a player is apparently not allowed to come.

This happened to Delonte West this year when the Dallas Mavericks visited the hallowed steps of Pennsylvania Avenue. Back in 2009, Delonte was arrested after being pulled over in a three-wheeled motorcycle carrying guns in a guitar case. Take a moment to get your head around that story. I can wait…….. The Secret Service disputed the fact that he was not allowed to visit, but maybe Barack didn’t like the fact that he was allegedly schtupping Lebron’s mom. Delonte shrugged his shoulders and simply said, “I’m the president of my house”. Yeah, I’m still waiting for that invite, too.

It sure must be a cool experience to meet Mr. President. Athletes and dignitaries have had the pleasure. Even Girl Scout troops have had a chance to extend their hand to the Prez. Somewhere on the list of influential people in society is the Internet sports journalist: I assume it’s below grocery store bagboy.

I’ve tried writing letters to see if I could crash on his couch, but they’ve gone unanswered. At this rate, I might have to resort to my more viable Plan B to make myself feel important: hiring someone to play “Hail to the Chief” while I perform my nightly ritual of eating canned peas.

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