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When Nationals Visit The White House, Sports And Politics Will Intersect Once Again

Fans gather in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 2019 as the Washington Nationals hold a parade to celebrate their World Series victory over the Houston Astros.
Stefani Reynolds
Getty Images
Fans gather in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 2, 2019 as the Washington Nationals hold a parade to celebrate their World Series victory over the Houston Astros.

Thousands of baseball fans sporting red caps and sweatshirts, emblazoned with the Washington Nationals' curly W, lined Constitution Avenue in Washington on Saturday to celebrate the team's historic World Series victory.

On Wednesday, the Nationals defeated the Houston Astros in Game 7 of the series with a 6-2 comeback, clinching the city's first baseball championship in 95 years.

Next on the team's schedule — a visit with President Trump.

The Nationals are scheduled to meet Trump on Monday, continuing a time-honored tradition of championship teams traveling to the White House for a meeting with the president. But in a city where partisan politics has long been the dominant sport, Monday's visit has itself taken a political turn.

On Friday, Nationals pitcher Sean Doolittle publicly confirmed that he will skip the event. Doolittle has been vocal about his opposition to many of the administration's policies.

"There's a lot of things, policies that I disagree with, but at the end of the day, it has more to do with the divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country," Doolittle told The Washington Post. "At the end of the day, as much as I wanted to be there with my teammates and share that experience with my teammates, I can't do it."

Even before Doolittle's decision, this year's World Series had delved into politics. During Game 5 of the series, Nationals fans booed Trump during an appearance at the team's Nationals Park and taunted him with cheers of "lock him up." During Game 7 in Houston, more than 16,000 Nationals fans gathered for a free viewing party back in Washington and again broke into boos when a Trump campaign ad aired during a commercial break.

While the fan response captured headlines, it was hardly the first instance of baseball intersecting with Washington politics.

The first team visit to the White House was in 1865. That summer, Washington, D.C. held a three-team baseball tournament. The Athletic from Philadelphia beat the Washington Nationals to win the tournament, but both teams were invited to visit the White House to meet President Andrew Johnson. As the story goes, the players from both teams attended and then one by one, shook the president's hand.

Even then, the meeting had a political motivation. According to The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum, this first meeting was arranged by the president of the National club, Arthur Pue Gorman, a white Southerner and Johnson supporter who in the aftermath of the Civil War wanted to maintain racial segregation. He saw baseball — which was then an all-white sport — and the meeting with Johnson as a way to do this.

It wasn't until the presidency of Ronald Reagan more than a century later that invitations for championship teams from across the sports world became a regular occurrence. So too did the practice of players snubbing those invitations.

In 1991, for example, after the Chicago Bulls won their first NBA title, Michael Jordan decided to play golf rather than meet with President George H.W. Bush.

Golfer Tom Lehman declined a meeting with President Bill Clinton, referring to him as a "draft-dodging baby killer."

Jake Arrieta of the Chicago Cubs skipped a visit to the Obama White House, as did Boston Bruins goalie and Tea Party supporter Tim Thomas.

But under the Trump administration there has been an uptick in the number of players — and in some cases entire teams — rejecting invitations to visit the White House, citing everything from scheduling conflicts to outright objections to the president's policies.

The uptick, in part, may be due to a shift in public attitudes. Athletes who were once expected to keep their opinions silent are now cheered by some fans for speaking up and other times jeered when they choose not to.

When teams have accepted invitations, the decision by some players not to attend has often overshadowed the actual visit. After their victory in last year's World Series, the Boston Red Sox visited the White House, but when they did, almost every nonwhite player and coach on the team was noticeably absent.

In 2017, the White House rescinded an invitation altogether after members of the NBA champion Golden State Warriors said that they were considering skipping the event. Trump tweeted the decision, saying, "invitation is withdrawn!" It was considered the first time a president ever pulled back an invite because of a spat with players.

This past summer during the Women's World Cup, members of the Women's National Soccer team, including Megan Rapinoe, said that if they won the tournament, they would decline an invitation to the White House. Trump responded, saying Rapinoe "should never disrespect our Country." The team ultimately won the World Cup, but did not receive an invitation to the White House.

Since Doolittle announced his decision, he told The Washington Post that he has received a flurry of social media messages from those who disagree with his decision, calling it disrespectful.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aubri Juhasz is a news assistant for NPR's All Things Considered.
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