When New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski crashed White House press secretary Sean Spicer's briefing on Wednesday afternoon, it became evidently clear that this would not be a typical day at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Apart from yielding awkward laughter from surrounding media members and a befuddled reaction from Spicer, a longtime Pats fan himself, Gronkowski's sudden appearance on live television served as a reminder that the Patriots were scheduled to visit the White House that day to celebrate their Super Bowl LI victory. In total, 34 members of the decorated team attended the first sports championship celebration of President Donald Trump's tenure in office -- Tom Brady, notably wasn't among them.
Yet while the majority of the team took part in the longstanding tradition of White House sports ceremonies, several dark clouds loomed over the proceedings.
A group of six players -- Alan Branch, LeGarrette Blount, Chris Long, Dont'a Hightower, Martellus Bennett and Devin McCourty -- publicly stated that they would not attend the ceremony with the rest of their teammates (34 were absent in all). Some, including six-time captain McCourty, openly expressed their concerns and explained that their stance was to be taken in the form of a political statement against Trump's administration.
"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 at the Boston University's "Play It Forward" summit (h/t ESPN). "I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won't. ... I don't believe in excluding other people."
McCourty wasn't the only outspoken member of the Patriots, as Blount told The Rich Eisen Show that he "just doesn't feel welcome in that house," while Bennett stated that "People know how I feel about it. Just follow me on Twitter."
The Patriots' ties to Trump are undeniable; owner Robert Kraft is a friend of the president and contributed significantly to his inauguration ceremony. He has since been reportedly spotted having dinner with Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-A-Lago. Apart from his friendship with Kraft, Trump namedropped Brady and coach Bill Belichick at various points on the campaign trail. He claimed to have their support and even quoted Brady saying "you're my friend and I voted for you." Brady has reportedly known Trump since 2002 when he judged one of the Miss Universe beauty pageants. His absence on Wednesday raises a few eyebrows.
But in the immediate aftermath of the Patriots victory in February, Kraft dismissed the notion that his players were outspoken against Trump, instead blaming the controversy on the media's portrayal.
"It's interesting, this is our fifth Super Bowl in the last 16 years, and every time we've had the privilege of going to the White House, a dozen of our players don't go," Kraft told NBC's Today show (h/t Sports Illustrated). "This is the first time it's gotten any media attention," Kraft said. "Some other players have the privilege of going [to the White House] 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."
During the White House ceremony on Wednesday, Trump invited Kraft to speak to the nation following his own opening statements. Afterward, Kraft gave the president a Super Bowl 51 Patriots jersey with the number 45 emblazoned on either side to represent Trump being the 45th commander-in-chief of the United States. Trump was also gifted with a Patriots helmet before posing alongside the team.
Brady cited "personal family matters" as a reason for not attending. The five-time Super Bowl champion also missed the 2015 celebration during the Obama administration. Lest one read too much into that, Brady still thanked Trump for "supporting our team for as long as I can remember," though Trump left his name out of his remarks.
Tom Brady is not attending White House ceremony today due to "personal family matters." His statement: pic.twitter.com/OIidVZX3VV- Mike Reiss (@MikeReiss) April 19, 2017
Meanwhile, the ceremony, which began at 2:15 pm ET on Wednesday, came hours after news broke that former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez committed suicide in his jail cell while serving a life sentence for a murder conviction, and just days after being acquitted for a separate double-murder charge. The 27-year-old reportedly hanged himself using a bed sheet attached to his cell window and was later pronounced dead at a hospital. His death was not mentioned during the gathering at the White House.
Trump focused his short speech on the New England Patriots' historic Super Bowl success, and how their overtime victory in February will be remembered as one of the sport's crowning achievements. However, Trump couldn't resist taking a shot at the media in the process.
"That is the beauty of what they do. They win as a team," said Trump. "With your backs against the wall and the pundits -- good ol' pundits, boy they're wrong a lot, aren't they -- saying you couldn't do it, the game was over. You pulled off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time and that was special.
"Whether you're trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as coach Belichick would say, 'there are no days off.'"
While the idea of sports teams and individual stars visiting the commander-in-chief has been a public relations formality that dates back over 150 years, it has recently morphed into a medium for sports activism and political statements under a controversial administration. Once a way for presidents to endear themselves to the public, to appear human and in touch with popular culture, the Patriots' latest visit had plenty of partisan undertones. Don't expect that to change any time soon.