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SportsColumnistsNeil Best

It’s time to put an end to White House visits by sports champions

President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn

President Donald Trump speaks on the South Lawn of the White House on April 19, 2017, during a ceremony where he honored the New England Patriots for their Super Bowl LI victory. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

This whole thing is Andrew Johnson’s fault, which is no surprise given that historians often rank him among the worst United States Presidents.

On Aug. 30, 1865, he invited the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn over, a day after they had trumped the Washington Nationals, 33-19, marking the first known visit by a sports team to the White House.

For a remarkably detailed account of what led up to it, I refer you to a 2011 article in “The Atlantic.” But The New York Times’ report of the game that day summed up the excitement:

“The New-York Club Atlantic vs. National have made the finest played game of the season. Never before in the annals of the game has there been a season marked with so many contests illustrative of the uncertainty of the game of base ball as this.”

New-York often was hyphenated then, and base ball usually was written as two words. But as that changed over the ensuing 150 years Johnson’s seemingly benign idea turned into something that has become ridiculous.

What for a long time was an occasional thing became regular during Ronald Reagan’s time in office, and it only grew from there. Under Barack Obama, the parade of champions likely was killing the grass at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

All of which brought us to Monday, when this tradition finally ran into a wall as Donald Trump disinvited the Super Bowl champion Eagles on the eve of their visit — which the vast majority of the team had planned to skip.

This came on the heels of an earlier dis-invitation to the NBA champion Warriors, many of whom also planned to take a pass.

On the surface, the episode was another dispiriting reminder of our political climate, a seemingly feel-good, non-partisan tradition turned into the latest fodder for one side and/or the other making and scoring points.

But there is a silver lining here, and it is non-partisan: This is as good a time as any to put an end to this stale ritual, much like the 1970s craze for Presidents calling winning locker rooms eventually faded into history.

Enough already. Let champions have their parades and be feted at City Hall. The White House should be reserved for honoring military or law enforcement personnel or people who cure diseases or feed the hungry. And astronauts!

There is nothing wrong with Presidents being sports fans, and most recent ones have been avid, including two who owned franchises, one who began his career as a sports announcer, one who played in the College World Series, one who was an All-American college football player and one who publicly filled out NCAA Tournament brackets.

Richard Nixon once said that if he had it to do all over again, he would have been (gasp!) a sportswriter.

But even if they came by their fandom honestly, they also used it for political purposes, demonstrating that they were men of the people.

Now the political purpose has taken a dark turn, and what used to be harmless fun has become another thing to anger and divide the citizenry.

This is not the first time players have made a political statement by not attending White House ceremonies, but what happened on Monday in anticipation of a near-boycott on Tuesday was on a scale never seen before.

Suddenly even sports visits have become partisan statements. NASCAR, yes! NBA, no!

Sigh. You don’t have to agree with either side to agree with this: Let’s not do this anymore. Fun has been suspended in Washington, D.C., and that includes sports photo ops.

If the Capitals win the Stanley Cup, let them visit the mayor, not the President.

That Times report on the Atlantics vs. Nationals showdown of 1865 included this nugget:

“After the game was over the parties adjourned to the National Hotel where their hospitable hosts had prepared a sumptuous feast for them, and the remainder of the evening was spent in social enjoyment.”

“Hospitable hosts”? “Social enjoyment”? Must have been nice.

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