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Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: White House Visit Has Players Soul-Searching

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 15, 2017

WASHINGTON, :  US President George W. Bush (L) participates in a photo opportunity 02 April, 2002 with the 2002 National Football League Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots in the Rose Garden of The White House in Washington, DC.  Bush was presented with a Patriots Jersey by Patriots owner Robert Kraft (L) and coach Bill Belichick (R). AFP PHOTO/Luke Frazza (Photo credit should read LUKE FRAZZA/AFP/Getty Images)
LUKE FRAZZA/Getty Images

The Patriots are caught in another controversy, more trouble for the Browns and a tough decision facing Hall of Fame voters next year.

    

1. To Go, or Not to Go?

I asked one of the biggest names in sports about one of the hottest topics in sports: If your team won a championship, would you take the customary trip to the White House? Or would you boycott it because you and/or your players disapproved of President Donald Trump's policies? 

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA's Mavericks and a longtime critic of Trump, answered succinctly.

"Definitely go," he told B/R. "Success is the best revenge."

Across all of sports, political activism has risen to levels not seen in decades, perhaps not since the 1960s. And the reason why is because of Trump and his policies, a number of athletes have said publicly.

Athletes are showing less fear in addressing their political beliefs. Some fans hate this. Others love this, no matter if we agree or disagree with those views.

That is, in part, Cuban's point. Express yourself, then go to the White House, and use the visit as an exclamation point in expressing discontent.

"The more you tell athletes to 'stick to sports,' the more outspoken we will become," former NFL player Donte Stallworth said on Instagram this week. "... For you to tell us 'this is the wrong platform' or 'not the right time' to protest or engage in controversial social/political discourse is truly laughable. We've worked our asses off for years, and you will not tell us when and where to speak our minds regardless of how it makes you feel."

The latest flashpoint in this debate is the decision by six members of the PatriotsMartellus Bennett, Devin McCourty, Chris Long, LeGarrette Blount, Alan Branch and Dont'a Hightower—to skip the ceremonial White House visit after their Super Bowl win.

Branch and Hightower said they would skip the potential visit for non-political reasons. Running back James White said he was unsure if he would attend. So it's possible there could be seven, or more, players who don't go.

Martellus Bennett has been outspoken in his position that he will not accompany his Patriots teammates to the White House because of his disagreements with the Trump administration.
Martellus Bennett has been outspoken in his position that he will not accompany his Patriots teammates to the White House because of his disagreements with the Trump administration.Bob Levey/Getty Images

A player refusing to attend the post-Super Bowl White House ceremony isn't unheard of. In fact, Tom Brady did it when Barack Obama was president. Brady said it was for personal reasons, but he was later seen shopping.

Brady on Tuesday told PFT Live (via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith) that teammates must make their own decisions on whether or not to attend.

"Everybody has their own choice," Brady said. "There's certain years, like a couple years ago, I wanted to go and didn't get the opportunity based on the schedule—we didn't get told until I think like 10 days before we were going, and at that point I had something I'd been planning for months and couldn't get there."

Brady added: "It really is a great experience. Putting politics aside, it never was a political thing. At least it never was to me. It meant you won a championship and you got to experience something cool with your team, with your teammates. Everyone has their own choice. [But] it's an offseason. These days are valuable for everybody. You only get so much time with your family and friends, and if people don't want to go, they don't want to go, and that's their choice."

Players have missed White House visits in the past. What's unusual this year is the number of NFL players who have said they will boycott it for political reasons. After some non-scientific research, I don't believe there's been this many holdouts since NFL Super Bowl champions began visiting the White House in 1980, when Jimmy Carter hosted the Steelers.

A search of Nexis and other scouring for NFL teams that visited the White House after winning the Super Bowl showed no more than three players in a single year, as far as I could tell, have ever announced they were refusing to attend because they disagreed with the stance of the president. Some of the notable absences included Brady (depending on what you believe) and the Ravens' Matt Birk (who opposed President Barack Obama's pro-abortion rights policies).

In 2013, three members of the 1972 Dolphins declined a White House visit, saying they disagreed with the president and his policies.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft told NBC's Today he's had players skip the visit before.

"Well, you know what's interesting, this is our, I'm happy to say, fifth Super Bowl in the last 16 years," Kraft said (via CSNNE.com's Phil Perry). "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."

Charles Krupa/Associated Press

Kraft's statement doesn't exactly address what's happening now. No other NFL team has had as many announced refusals, my research showed, and I explored all the way to that first ceremony in 1980.

The Patriots players saying they wouldn't go appear to have some support from their NFL brethren. Eleven players surveyed by B/R were asked if they would attend a ceremony at the White House should their team win the Super Bowl during Trump's presidency.

Eight of the 11 players said they would not. Two said they were undecided, and one said they would.

Six of the 11 players are white. Three of the white players said they would not go because they oppose Trump. Two of the white players said they were unsure. One said he would attend.

All five of the black players said if their team won, they would skip the ceremony because of Trump.

"Going would betray everything I believe in," one black player said.

The white player who would attend said not going "shows a lack of respect for the office of the presidency."

It's clear many players disagree with Cuban's sentiments and feel missing the visit would be the strongest possible statement they could make.

"Basic reason for me is I don't feel accepted in the White House," McCourty said. "With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won't."

    

2. Trouble for Browns Owner Re-Emerges

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 20:  Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam looks on during warmups prior to the game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at FirstEnergy Stadium on November 20, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

If you haven't followed this story about the company owned by the Browns' Jimmy Haslam, Pilot Flying J, it is getting highly interesting. A scheme that defrauded trucking companies of millions of dollars in fuel rebates allegedly cheated the U.S. Postal Service of fuel rebates, as well.

While Haslam has denied any knowledge of the wrongdoing, other owners have long been privately worried about this case. I've been told by league sources that worry has only escalated as things have appeared to grow more intense in the case.

Until this is settled one way or another, the league will continue watching, and wondering.

    

3. Where Should Jimmy Garoppolo Go?

According to one general manager, here are the best fits for Tom Brady's understudy should the Patriots choose to deal him this offseason:

5. Texans

4. Patriots

3. Bears

2. 49ers

1. Browns

    

4. Not So Fast, Aldon Smith

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 8:  Linebacker Aldon Smith #99 of the Oakland Raiders looks on from the field before a game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field on November 8, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers defeated the Raiders 38-35.
George Gojkovich/Getty Images

There's no denying the Raiders defensive lineman is one of the best pure talents in football. If you judged him solely on his abilities, he's probably one of the top five linemen in the NFL.

But that's not the whole equation.

Smith has had multiple DUI incidents, and the totality of his off-field issues led to a one-year suspension. He was on track to get back into the league, but then, according to TMZ, he was involved in a domestic dispute.

I don't have anyone in the league office saying this specifically, but what I can tell you is, at the very least, the NFL will hit pause on any type of reinstatement. It's possible this incident dooms Smith's chances of re-entering the league ever again.

The reasonto be blunthas little to do with whether or not the latest allegation is even true. The NFL (read: Roger Goodell) simply doesn't trust players who constantly find themselves in trouble. It's clear the NFL will have little sympathy for Smith and look to delay any reinstatement for as long as possible.

Rightly or wrongly, one of the things the NFL (read: Goodell) wants to see from suspended players is if they can just avoid negative headlines. Is that always fair? No, but in this case it would be difficult to blame the NFL (read: Goodell) for taking its time to evaluate Smith's situation.

    

5. Draft Prognosis: Meh

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09:  Quarterback Deshaun Watson #4 of the Clemson Tigers throws a pass during the first half against the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 i
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I asked a longtime NFC assistant coach what he thought of the talent level of this draft. His response:

"It's OK. Just OK. Some good defensive players. Maybe just a handful of players that make you go 'Wow' when you watch them on film. The biggest problem is the lack of a great quarterback. I think [Clemson quarterback] Deshaun Watson will be good, not great. I'd give this draft a B-minus, at best."

    

6. Watson Hype Has Begun

Though the aforementioned NFC assistant was not a big fan, a handful of team front office executives feel Watson could be a special quarterback. One executive even compared him to Aaron Rodgers when he was coming out of Cal. Yes, that Aaron Rodgers.

    

7. Raiders' Brilliant Move

Consider the revolving door of Raiders coaches since 1994: Mike White, Joe Bugel, Jon Gruden, Bill Callahan, Norv Turner, Art Shell, Lane Kiffin, Tom Cable, Hue Jackson, Dennis Allen, Tony Sparano and Jack Del Rio.

That's 12 coaches in 22 years.

That is why Del Rio's contract extension was one of the most meaningful moves the Raiders have made in recent years. It provides coaching stability the organization hasn't had in a long time.

While the franchise's move to Las Vegas may be in jeopardy, it's coaching future is in good hands.

    

8. It's Good to Be Tom Brady

NFL @NFL

1, 2, 3, 4, FIVE. Re-live all of Tom Brady 's Super Bowl wins in 60 seconds.⏲👇 https://t.co/nSqYTnhp4V

Hate Brady or not, this video is pretty damn good. Just wanted to share it in case you haven't seen it.

Then, Brady posted this on Instagram. It sounds a lot like Brady wants to keep playing for years to come. I think he will. The question is, will it be in New England, or will he be like other great quarterbacks such as John Unitas and Joe Montana, who finished their careers elsewhere?

    

9. Canton Conundrum

LeRoy Butler is right—he should be in Hall of Fame. But there's a good chance, unfortunately, the former Green Bay safety may not get in for years, if ever.

He was easily one of the best safeties I saw in more than 25 years of covering the sport. He was as versatile as they come at the position, with an ability to defend almost anyone on the field. He excelled in run support and was an excellent blitzer.

1 Oct 2000: LeRoy Butler #36 of the Green Bay Packers walks on the field during the game against the Chicago Bears  at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Bears defeated the Packers 27-24.Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Daniel  /Allsport
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Simply put, he's better than many of the safeties already in the Hall of Fame.

"If they go by numbers, then I think it's a slam-dunk I'll be in," he explained in an interview with Wes Hodkiewicz of Packers.com. "If they go by the guy who really started this safety blitzing and covering and stuff like that, I know it will take care of itself and I'll eventually get in. I just don't know what they go by."

I'm not sure either.

What I do know is that it can take literally decades for safeties to get into Canton. The position isn't that valued by voters despite it being one of the most difficult to play in all of sports.

So Butler will wait, even if he shouldn't.

    

10. You Can't Legislate Effort

The shameful snub of Terrell Owens this year from the Hall of Fame createdI hate this phrase, but it's the best one to utilizea slippery slope that will soon be tested.

Randy Moss will be eligible for the Hall of Fame next season. Moss was the most explosive wide receiver—and maybe playerof all time. I could argue he was better than Jerry Rice. I might lose the argument, but it would be close.

There's no question Moss and the Hall of Fame go together like bacon and eggs. But this is where things get interesting.

Remember, Hall of Fame voters said Owens didn't deserve to get in because he was a bad teammate. So what do you do with Moss, who was, at times, genuinely, a bad teammate, too?

PONTIAC, :  Detroit Lions defender J.B. Brown (L) brings down Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss during their 17 October 1999 game at the Silverdome in Pontiac, Michigan. The Lions beat the Vikings 25-23 dropping their record to 2-4. . AFP PHOTO/Jeff K
JEFF KOWALSKY/Getty Images

It was Moss, remember, who once said, "I play when I want to play."

I covered the entirety of Moss' career. I still remember then-Vikings coach Dennis Green, on the day of the 1998 draft, telling me he believed Moss would be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. And Moss is. He rarely ceased to amaze.

But I also watched him run lazy routes, quit if his team fell behind, not block worth a damn and, at times, just not care if the ball wasn't going to him.

The things said about Owens are mostly fantasies. Moss, at times, really was a horrible teammate and flat-out jerk.

Still, none of that should matter. Moss is a Hall of Famereasily. But because of the stupid precedent set with Owens, doesn't logic dictate that Moss has to be kept out next year, too?

This is the problem with legislating the football equivalent of morality into the Hall of Fame debate.

    

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @mikefreemanNFL.

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