President Donald Trump offered only a veiled jab at teams that have snubbed his invitations as he praised the Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday on its visit to the White House.
“By the way, everybody wanted to be here today,” Trump said to laughter at a White House ceremony.
Trump made a point of singling out the teams that have come to the White House at his invitation: the New England Patriots, the Chicago Cubs and the Clemson Tigers. “It’s been an honor to have them all here,” he said.
The Penguins was the first championship team honored at the White House since Trump called on NFL team owners last month to fire players who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence against black Americans.
Trump rescinded the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors’ invitation to the White House in September after star Steph Curry said he didn’t want to go. “By acting and not going, hopefully that will inspire some change when it comes to what we tolerate in this country and what is accepted and what we turn a blind eye to,” Curry said. The University of North Carolina’s basketball team, which won the NCAA championship in April, didn’t collect on its invitation to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. because, the team’s spokesman said, they “couldn’t find a date that worked for both parties.”
On Sunday, Vice President Mike Pence abruptly left an Indianapolis Colts vs. San Francisco 49ers’ game after players kneeled during the national anthem.
On Tuesday, NFL team owners said they will consider requiring players to stand for the national anthem after Trump said he may use tax laws to penalize the league for players who kneel.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said after the East Room ceremony that players, including his own, have the right to express their beliefs in ways that suit them.
“We understand the circumstance surrounding this visit, we’ve very respectful of anyone rights to protest or demonstrate as they see fit,” Sullivan told reporters outside the White House. “We’ve stated clearly from the get-go that we choose to come here as a team to celebrate our championship, this group of players and what they’ve been able to do.”
Sullivan said he hoped the visit would honor what the White House represents in the United States. The Penguins are celebrating its second consecutive championship.
“No one is choosing a side, no one is taking a stand,” he said. “Anytime you have an opportunity to visit the White House is an exciting opportunity.”
Trump’s comments come after Tampa Bay Lightning forward J.T. Brown raised his fist Saturday during the pre-game national anthem. He became the first NHL player to hold a silent player protest.
Penguins star Sidney Crosby said before his visit that “there's absolutely no politics involved” in his decision to go to the White House.
Trump briefly talked politics when he jokingly asked Penguins co-owner Ron Burkle to help him renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement, the trade deal between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
“He's a great, great negotiator,” he said. “Ron, how about negotiating some of our horrible trade deals that they've made? It’s great to have you Ron, but I really mean that. If you want to get involved in negotiating NAFTA, I like it.”
Anita Kumar contributed.