WASHINGTON — Ever since President Jimmy Carter invited the NBA's Washington Bullets to the White House in 1978, presidents of both parties have used the White House to celebrate championship teams as the embodiment of American virtues of teamwork, determination and diversity.
But President Trump's weekend assaults on those who took a knee during the anthem have jeopardized that tradition, as the event has become wrapped up in cultural wars over patriotism, police violence and race during the Trump presidency.
First, Trump said at a rally Friday night that NFL owners should fire any player who kneels in protest during the national anthem. "Get that son of a bitch off the field right now," he said. What followed was a weekend of non-stop coverage of national anthem protests.
Then Trump rescinded a White House invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors after their star player Stephen Curry expressed ambivalence.
It follows a pattern of Trump breaking with presidential traditions — some substantive, and others more ceremonial. In response to opposition, he skipped the Kennedy Center Honors and the White House Correspondents' Dinner. And he frequently injects political comments into non-political events like the Boy Scout Jamboree and previous ceremonies honoring championship football teams.
To use the sports metaphors favored by presidents on these occasions, a championship team's invitation to the White House should be a slam dunk. They give a president an opportunity to appear presidential, to be a "winner by association,"and to adopt the team's victory as an American moment.
"These are important ceremonies, otherwise they wouldn’t be happening," said Michael Hester of the University of West Georgia, who has studied presidential sports ceremonies. "They're perfect for a president to use their office, to use their pulpit, to articulate national values."
Presidents have invited sports teams to the White House since at least Andrew Johnson, according to the White House Historical Association. Johnson invited two amateur baseball teams — the first professional team was still four years away — in August, 1865, just three months after the end of the Civil War.
Other teams were recognized sporadically, but it wasn't until Jimmy Carter that the tradition began to take hold. Reagan expanded and popularized the practice, with frequent references to The Gipper, a reference to his movie portrayal of the college football star. Over time, Olympic medalists, collegiate teams and women's sports have also been recognized.
Regardless of president or party, those events have largely followed the same script. There are some subtle differences: Republicans talk more about individual achievement, while Democrats talk more about teamwork, for example.
And while presidents sometimes compare championship sports teams to presidential campaigns, Trump has perhaps gone further than his predecessors. Honoring the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, Trump told a long story about how coach Bill Belichick supported him in the campaign. At a ceremony to present the Commander in Chief Trophy to the Air Force Academy Falcons — and with cadets as a backdrop — he blasted Democrats three times, putting the officially apolitical cadets in an awkward situation.
Trump's polarizing presidency has caused an increasing number of athletes to say they won't attend the White House ceremonies.
"Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating, therefore invitation is withdrawn!" Trump tweeted Saturday.
LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers — perhaps Curry's biggest on-court rival — defended Curry and called Trump a "bum" on Twitter. " Going to White House was a great honor until you showed up!” he said.
At the Cavalier's media day outside Cleveland Monday, James accused Trump of being divisive. "The thing that kind of frustrated me and pissed me off a little bit is the fact that ... he used the sports platform to try to divide us. And sports is so, is so, is so amazing," James said.
But White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Monday the remarks were intended to be unifying, not divisive.
"Look, this isn't about the president being against anyone," she said. "This is about the president and millions of Americans being for something; being for honoring our flag, honoring our national anthem, and honoring the men and women who fought to defend it."