When the New England Patriots head to the White House Wednesday to celebrate their latest Super Bowl championship, several high-profile players will be missing.
Safety Devin McCourty, tight end Martellus Bennett, running back LeGarrette Blount, and pass rusher Chris Long are among those who have publicly said they will not attend the ceremony due to their disagreements with President Trump. Long is white, but most of the players who are staying away are black.
"For me, it was just the different things that come out of the White House or the administration just didn't agree or align with some of my views," McCourty said recently.
The Patriots have often been linked to Trump (somewhat unfairly, in my view) because owner Robert Kraft, head coach Bill Belichick, and quarterback Tom Brady are all personally friendly with the president from before he was involved in politics. It has been heavily implied that Brady voted for Trump last year and his wife talked him out of saying so in public.
But not all the Patriots like Trump. Far from it.
Throughout last season, there were several Patriots players who expressed strong political opinions — without garnering the same headlines as then San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who refused to stand for the national anthem in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and ended up drawing criticism from Trump himself.
"I think it's personally not a good thing, I think it's a terrible thing," Trump said. "And, you know, maybe he should find a country that works better for him. Let him try, it won't happen." After becoming president, Trump took credit for Kaepernick's continued NFL unemployment.
McCourty and Bennett both participated in protests during the national anthem to call attention to their concerns about young black men dying during interactions with law enforcement. Unlike Kaepernick, they stood for the anthem but raised their firsts. And they both spoke in a much more nuanced way, taking pains to emphasize their support for the country, the military, and police.
"As players, we respect the anthem," McCourty said. "A lot of guys have friends and family members that serve and believe in what people go out there and fight for, but you also see guys that believe in using our platform and trying to be leaders and help change in the country." He wore American flag socks at the same game to show his national pride.
"We love this country, he added. "But it doesn't mean we can't improve it."
"My dad also served 10 years in the Navy," Bennett said. "It's one of those things to let them know that this is something we care about. This is something that we want to bring change in a positive way. We're not trying to be a distraction, or anything like that."
Trump ran as a defender of law enforcement against what his supporters saw as unjust accusations of racism. His attorney general Jeff Sessions has reinforced that position since taking office.
The president has also been a polarizing figure in less defensible ways, tapping into racial resentments and speaking in ways that can most charitably be described as insensitive, starting with his fact-free birther crusade against his predecessor, the first black president of the United States.
Yet at the same, Trump has made clumsy overtures to the black community and demonstrated an intermittent interest in minority outreach. He has occasionally tried to stress that his nationalism is pan-ethnic and transcends racial lines.
"What do you have to lose?" he asked African-American voters about casting a ballot for him. He predicted he would dramatically increase his black vote share in 2020. Many of these Americans are plagued with the same economic problems and have been laid off from the same shuttered factories as Trump's white working-class voters.
Bennett and McCourty are never likely to be Trump voters, but they are not radicals. Their concerns are reasonable and expressed civilly. They too speak the language of American civic nationalism.
If Trump cannot convince young men like these two football players that he is a person of goodwill, fostering a climate in which they can agree to disagree, he will never be able to reach beyond the base he cultivated during last year's campaign.
Trump will undoubtedly bring up his support for the Patriots during public relations battles like Deflategate. But the success of his administration will depend in part on his ability to appeal to Patriots — and patriots — of all colors.