A good segment of media is dedicated strictly to trolling Donald Trump’s short insecure Twitter finger into responding to something they’ve written. Almost no better example of this came Wednesday when the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots visited the White House.
There has been a months-long crusade to question players’ decision to attend, and to keep track of how many players decide to sit out the tradition altogether. This has become one of those meaningless narratives pushed to somehow prove a point about Trump’s popularity compared to Obama’s. They do it because they know it bothers Trump.
Members of the Patriots who refused to appear at the White House over political disagreements are celebrated and singled out for their brave stances.
On Wednesday the New York Times sports Twitter account compared a picture of the 2015 Patriots at the White House to the 2017 Patriots, highlighting the fact that Tom Brady did not make the trip, a fun game of telephone among journalist Twitter. The Times tweet got over 25,000 retweets. The hometown paper Boston Globe even got in on the action as did Politico, snark tweeting “It was supposed to be a party but the @patriots visit to the White House was a subdued affair.”
More media, and specifically sports media, are demanding athletes make a political statement with their careers and the traditions that come with it. Colin Kaepernick is celebrated while sports writers demand a pro team sign him to their roster for no other reason than politics.
They also appear to have a very short memory.
So let’s flashback to the Stanley Cup winner of 2011, the Boston Bruins, and their MVP-winning goaltender, Tim Thomas. The Bruins, one of the most celebrated franchises in pro hockey, had not won a Stanley Cup since 1970. Things became so bad for the Bruins that the face of the franchise, Ray Bourque, demanded a trade out of Boston to contend for a Stanley Cup, which he won, when traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2001. But in 2011, the Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks to finally hoist the legendary trophy, and they did it largely on the back of their goalie, Thomas, who took home the playoff MVP honors.
But the honeymoon with Thomas was short-lived when he announced he would not be joining the team on their White House visit. Thing were made worse for Thomas when he released a statement regarding his absence. Thomas’ full statement read:
“I believe the Federal government has grown out of control, threatening the Rights, Liberties and Property of the People.
This is being done at the Executive, Legislative and Judicial level. This is in direct opposition to the Constitution and the Founding Fathers vision for the Federal government.
Because I believe this, today I exercised my right as a Free Citizen, and did not visit the White House. 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.
This is the only public statement I will be making on this topic. TT”
This was a bold political statement made by a professional athlete that today, and on the other side of the aisle, would have been celebrated for its bluntness and courage. But that was not how it was covered by media at large at the time.
Joe McDonald of ESPN wrote “Tim Thomas put himself above the team,”claiming Thomas picked the wrong time to make a statement and going on to write in his piece: “When the president of the United States invites you and all your teammates to the White House to honor your Stanley Cup championship, you go and represent the team. On Monday, Thomas instead chose to represent himself.”
James Hardie from Bleacher Report wrote: “If Thomas was a real man, he would have gone to the Boston Bruins management and ownership, returned the money from his contract and quit the balance of it by retiring—so he could exercise his rights as a free citizen.”
Over at Sports Illustrated, Stu Hackel wrote, “There is a time and place for people in hockey to express themselves politically as individuals. They can do it in the voting booth, they can donate to political causes they support, they can do it almost any time or any way they wish—except when the time in question is for the team. Tim Thomas decided to exploit a non-political event to expose his personal political views.”
And the Boston Globe? The same paper that seemed to take a snarky glee in Patriots players snubbing Trump at the White House? This is what columnist Kevin Paul Dupont wrote at the time: “Yesterday was not about politics and government until Thomas made it about politics and government. The day, long set on the calendar, was a day when the Boston Bruins were asked to visit Pennsylvania Avenue to celebrate what they did as a team last season. It was their day in the national spotlight, until Thomas didn’t show, and then the focal point became, much the way it would be in a hockey game, on the guy who was no longer standing in goal.”
Dupont continued, calling Thomas “Shabby. Immature. Unprofessional. Self-centered. Bush league.”
When DuPont tweeted out a Boston Globe story of Patriots player Alan Branch skipping because of “Trump’s sexist remarks,” he had no such commentary to add.
Margery Eagean of the Boston Herald pondered: “I’m just not sure how any of that translates into not showing up for a five-minute White House photo-op—unless Thomas thinks shaking Obama’s hand would somehow taint him, contaminate him, mark him as consorting with the enemy. Unless Thomas thinks Obama’s policies make him an evil, contemptible person.”
The Washington Post weighed in as well, with two very different headlines. In a video story about the Patriots visit, the headline blared “No-shows and boycotts mar Trump’s White House welcome for the Patriots.” But in January of 2012, The Post had a strikingly different take. “Tim Thomas skips White House visit: Did his political statement backfire?”
Michael Moore, a Flint, Michigan, native along with Thomas, tweeted at the time, “ Tim Thomas & I went to the same high school. I can tell u this: People in Flint LOVE Obama, desperately need Obama, & DETEST Thomas’ actions”
This ordeal wasn’t the end of the road for Thomas. His stance arguably cost him his place on the Bruins completely. He was traded to the New York Islanders a season later for conditional draft picks (A team’s way of saying to another team, ‘please take this guy off our hands for free’) and later traded or signed with several other teams. He was retired out of the NHL in 2013, two full seasons after winning a Stanley Cup and playoff MVP.
What changed for sports media? Why was Thomas excoriated for his act of protest but what Patriots players did by sitting home was deemed an act of resistance and bravery in the face of fascism, sexism and racism? The answer, of course, is all too obvious, and that’s the media’s credibility problem in this golden age of accountability and truth-telling. In fairness to Thomas, it’s almost near impossible to kneel in goalie pads during the National Anthem.