The Pittsburgh Penguins, the National Hockey League champions for the 2016-2017 season, toured the White House today (Oct. 10) and were warmly praised by president Donald Trump for their Stanley Cup win, their charitable giving, and their patriotism.
“You are true, true champions and incredible patriots,” the president said, highlighting their “incredible, loyal fans.” The team embodies the values of “dedication, discipline, and hard work,” Trump said, and encourages “every young American watching today” to “always strive to be your best, to do your best, and to give your all. “
While the praise for their season on the ice and their donations are well-deserved, the team itself is a bit at odds with the administration’s “America First” agenda. Like most teams in the whitest major professional sport in the US, the Penguins are not ethnically diverse—but of the team’s 24 players, only nine were born in the United States. There’s an equal number from Canada, while the rest are from Finland, Sweden, Russia, and Germany. They’re likely playing in the US for the National Hockey League under O-1 or P-2 temporary visas.
The US president praising a bunch of non-Americans as patriots would, in any other White House, probably just be a goofy mistake. But Trump’s remarks were another jarring incident in a presidency that’s marked by eroding rights for American minorities and immigrants, and backed by supporters who fund white nationalists.
The Penguins’ visit, after all, was announced by Trump shortly after he dis-invited America’s best basketball team, California’s Golden State Warriors, last month. Trump withdrew his invitation after the Warriors’ star player Stephen Curry expressed reticence about a White House visit because of “the things that [Trump] said and the things that he hasn’t said.”
In recent weeks, Trump failed to denounce neo-Nazis marching in Virginia, one of whom killed a counter-protester, and referred to a National Football League player who protested the unjustified police killing of black men by kneeling on the field as a “son of a bitch.“
Since then, Trump has gone on several angry Twitter rants about American football players, and suggested the league should pay more taxes if protesting players don’t stand during the national anthem. Unlike the NHL, US football teams are made up almost exclusively of Americans, and 70% of the players are black.
Some life-long Penguins fans worried before today’s visit the team was being turned into a political prop by Trump. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan denied this after meeting Trump at the White House, and said the team accepted the invitation as a “celebration of this group of players winning a championship.”
Would Sullivan mind if one of his players were to “take a knee” to protest ahead of a game, one reporter asked. No, he said, he is “respectful” of the players “right to protest as they see fit.”