There’s an awful lot to untangle with the Pittsburgh Penguins’ announcement Sunday that they have accepted an invitation to visit the White House as Stanley Cup champions. Not the least of which is the fact the Penguins have been put in an untenable position and have been dragged into this morass. Hell, we all have. I know I’d much rather spend my time writing about how great it is that NHL.com has archived all of its summaries back to 1917 or how ridiculous it is that Tom Wilson was sentenced two-preseason games for something the NHL deemed as a suspendable offense.
(As I said on Twitter over the weekend, suspending a guy for two pre-season games is tantamount to grounding your son by telling him he’s forbidden from clipping Grandma’s toenails for the next two months.)
The second thing to consider is that the Penguins were going to get blasted whichever way they went on this. Unlike the playoffs the past two years, there was no winning for the Penguins here. There were those who hated the decision and what it represents, others who blasted the timing. It seemed to them that the Penguins were making a point of supporting Donald Trump at a time when he had pretty much alienated the entire sporting world with his comments about NFL players who protest the anthem being “sons of bitches” and withdrawing his invitation to the NBA’s Golden State Warriors to attend the White House.
But here’s the thing. The Penguins were asked about all of this two days after they won the Stanley Cup, right around the time Steph Curry was talking about not attending. When asked about the possibility of going to the White House, Penguins CEO David Morehouse put out a statement on June 13 that said: “The Pittsburgh Penguins would never turn down a visit to the White House and, if invited, we would go as a team.” Then Morehouse went on to say, “We respect the office of the presidency of the United States and what it stands for. Any opposition or disagreement with a president’s policies, or agenda, can be expressed in other ways.”
The statement and comments were picked up by all the major networks and newspapers at the time. So let’s fast-forward to the weekend, when Trump travelled to Alabama and threw gas on a tire fire with his comments on Saturday. The Penguins were starting to get calls on it Saturday night and knew more were coming Sunday morning, just hours before they were scheduled to play the Kraft Hockeyville game at their practice rink in Belle Vernon, Pa. The players and coaches were due off the ice after their morning skate at 11:10 a.m. and the Penguins put their release out at 10:55 a.m. They did that because the last thing they wanted was for their coaches and players to be the first line of defense when it came to questions concerning their intentions to visit the White House. They didn’t do it to thumb their nose at the NFL or show support for Trump.
And here’s something else worth noting: if there is anybody in the Penguins’ organization that would have the moral standing to snub Trump, it would be the team’s own CEO. Before joining the Penguins, Morehouse worked on Bill Clinton’s campaigns in 1992 and ’96, worked in the vice-president’s office in the White House under Al Gore, was a senior advisor to Gore’s presidential campaign in 2000 and was John Kerry’s chief of staff when he ran for president in 2004. Part-owner Ron Burkle has supported both Democrats and Republicans, but once said he has raised about $10 million for the Clintons. It should also be noted that while the Penguins are planning to attend the White House as an organization, the team would respect the wishes of any individual player if he declined.
So now the argument gets to whether or not the Penguins should attend. Well, their stance on it is that they’re honored to be invited, just as they were when Barack Obama invited them in 2009 and 2016, and when George H.W. Bush had them after their first Cup championship in 1991. (They didn’t go in 1992 because it was an election year in the U.S.) What it comes down to is whether or not standing side-by-side with Trump holding up a Penguins sweater during a photo op is tantamount to supporting his incendiary rants and divisive policies. Well, did all the teams that attended the White House when George W. Bush was president make the statement that they supported the invasion of Iraq? Did those teams that accepted Bill Clinton’s invitations proclaim their support for his marital infidelities?
The answer to that is, of course, no. What also has to be taken into account is the Penguins are the canary in the coal mine. No team in history has ever turned down the opportunity to visit the White House. The Warriors, don’t forget, had their invitation rescinded by Trump himself.
Is Trump this polarizing, this extreme, this dangerous, that accepting his invitation is somehow different, that it’s time for a team such as the Penguins to stop just sticking to hockey and make a statement. You could certainly make that argument. But so much of this debate is about freedom of expression and freedom of speech. The Penguins will have to live with the criticism they’ll receive for this decision, most of which will likely go away the day after they visit the White House.
Chances are, this will cease being a story the day after that visit. But this is a matter of choice and the Penguins choose to honor the institution rather than the person occupying it.