"Well, you know what's interesting, this is our, I'm happy to say, fifth Super Bowl in the last 16 years," Kraft said Monday. "And every time we've had the privilege of going to the White House, a dozen of our players don't go. This is the first time it's gotten any media attention. You know, some of the players have the privilege of going in college because they're on national championship teams, others have family commitments. But this is America. We're all free to do whatever's best for us. We're just privileged to be in a position to be going."
TODAY host Matt Lauer had asked Kraft whether his relationship with President Donald Trump had harmed his relationship with Patriots players. Kraft did not elaborate on what (if any) discussions he's had regarding Trump.
WATCH “Has your relationship with Donald Trump in any way restrained your relationship with some of your players?” @MLauer asks #RobertKraft https://t.co/COcCuWlJm72017-2-13 13:23:56
Defensive end Chris Long, running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive tackle Alan Branch and linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive back Devin McCourty and tight end Martellus Bennett have announced their decision to not attend the traditional post-Super Bowl White House visit.
"I will not be going to the White House. I don't feel welcome in that house. I'll leave it at that," Blount said on the Rich Eisen Show.
That sentiment of acceptance (or lack thereof) was echoed by McCourty.
"I'm not going to the White House," McCourty wrote in a text message to TIME's Sean Gregory. "Basic reason for me is I don't feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won't."
Trump has been a polarizing figure throughout his candidacy and early in his presidency, particularly for his societal policies and comments on people of color. Trump's since-overturned ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries was enveloping headlines as the Patriots prepared for their Super Bowl LI matchup with the Atlanta Falcons.
Kraft is a longtime friend of Trump. He was a guest at the president's pre-inauguration dinner and dined Friday with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Florida. In an interview with Gary Myers of the New York Daily News, Kraft credited Trump's kindness following the passing of his wife, Myra, as the reason they became closer.
"When Myra died, Melania and Donald came up to the funeral in our synagogue, then they came for memorial week to visit with me," Kraft said. "Then he called me once a week for the whole year, the most depressing year of my life when I was down and out. He called me every week to see how I was doing, invited me to things, tried to lift my spirits. He was one of five or six people that were like that. I remember that."
It's worth noting that Tom Brady skipped the Patriots' White House visit in 2015. It's unclear if Brady will attend this time, but he, like Kraft, is counted as a friend of Trump.