For presidents like George H.W. Bush, who said that "whenever the Redskins have won the Super Bowl, the U.S. economy has improved that year," NFL champions being honored at the White House have been valuable indicators of economic problems.
For others, like Jimmy Carter, who said the Pittsburgh Steelers (and Pirates) showed him how to "meet a tough challenge" and unite communities, they've been examples of virtues the nation can learn from in the wake of dire circumstances. Observers also noted it seemed to be a good move for his sinking approval ratings at the time.
And for presidents like Barack Obama, they've been an opportunity to enjoy some of the perks of the office and make a positive mark in the relenting 24-7 news cycle (and help remind people he's a fan too.)
But no matter what presidents have used them for, it's been a longstanding tradition that gained traction with Ronald Reagan for every champion from the Super Bowl to NCAA championships ranging from men's basketball to women's lacrosse to visit the White House, toting a jersey and a signed piece of memorabilia with them. When the Baltimore Ravens join those ranks, for the second time in franchise history Wednesday, it will not only be a chance for Obama to jokingly glean some secrets to pass onto his beloved Bears -- but also for a guaranteed positive good news story on a few local papers.
After all, said SMU Political Science Professor Cal Jillson, there's nothing better than a guaranteed positive photo op in a day of what is likely to be dreary news and punches from the opposing party.
"Presidents see a benefit in a entirely positive event where they are recognizing the accomplishment of championship sports teams and for the team itself, the White House is the center of the American public space," he said. "And to be invited to the White House, to stand with the president, is something that every coach and every member of those winning sports teams remember for the rest of their life.
"It's a really neat joining of the interests of the politicians and the sports teams to have a strikingly memorable sort of event and for the president you get to stand with acknowledged winners in a noncompetitive entirely celebratory environment and you can imagine how good that feels after you’ve been beaten on by parties all day."
While presidents have shown interest in sports throughout history, presidential library records show it wasn't until Ronald Reagan took office that a White House visit by each Super Bowl team, then NCAA, World Series, NBA and Stanley Cup champions became tradition. It was born, historians believe, as an upgrade from the phone call presidents used to give Super Bowl winners.
"Reagan eventually figured that if a post-game phone call to an NFL player or head coach was good public relations, it would be even better for his approval ratings if he actually invited an entire team to the White House,” the NFL Films Archives noted.
Whether it was his idea, or an advisor's, it wasn’t a total shock, said Kean University professor Terry Golway. After all, Reagan had started out as a sports announcer, recreating games for the Chicago Cubs. Then as an actor, he was the one who said, "Win one for the Gipper" in Knute Rockne: All-American, while also portraying Hall of Fame pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander in The Winning Team.
"I think he had an intense interest in sports already, I don’t think it would have required much persuasion," he said. "It's not surprising that Presidents sort of want to be seen with these heroes, [especially given the attention paid to them]. If you could get if as many people watch the Super Bowl also watched opera the President would have tenors at the White House."
The idea, however, may have come a little earlier from President Carter, who brought in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Pirates in 1980 amid tanking approval ratings and a tight primary election, something Golway says elicited more than a few eye rolls.
"Carter was a sitting duck and Pennsylvania is a pretty important state [in electoral politics]," he said. “So it was pretty transparent what he was trying to do especially since Jimmy Carter didn't have a reputation as a sports fan."
The tradition shows no sign of slowing down either. In the same rate that sports have been added to networks' sports schedule, like the WNBA and women's soccer league, they too were nearly immediately extended an invite to the White House.
By the time the second Bush was president, Golway says, there were ceremonies honoring all of the NCAA winter sports winners. Now, a trip to the White House has become a nearly annual thing for teams like Northwestern women's lacrosse (which once sparked a small scandal when a player wore flip flops to their 2005 visit) and the Maryland field hockey team.
Having sports involved in political life is a time-honored tradition that dates back to Andrew Johnson inviting an amateur team from Brooklyn to the White House, Golway says, and really took off when William Howard Taft was photographed throwing out the first pitch.
Luckily for him, it wasn't nearly as scrutinized as Presidents' pitches are today thanks to SportsCenter.
Perhaps the most amazing part of the White House visits, is that they still do indeed do exactly what they are supposed to: Gain national attention, that's mostly positive and makes the front of local newspapers nearly every time. For players, who can't attend the ceremony for whatever reason, an immediate explanation is usually required -- something that can sometimes turn its own news story when it is a political statement. And even for players who have been to the White House numerous times, it still seems to hold a special excitement.
Ravens players nearly uniformly tweeted pictures of themselves Wednesday dressed in their best and incredibly excited to go to a place just 45 minutes from where they've lived for at least part of the year -- and where many have visited before whether as people involved in social programs or as previous champions.
Check me out!!! instagram.com/p/aLiaJck-U1/
— Torrey Smith (@TorreySmithWR) June 5, 2013
The model of presidents inserting themselves in events like the Super Bowl is only expanding for the spread of the 24-hour news cycle. Take for example, Golway points out, Michelle Obama's appearance at the Oscars this year. "I was wondering when presidents were going to start doing that too," he said. "Frankly I think that's just a matter of time. Here’s a spectacle that's only second to the super bowl, I see it coming, I see some ways of presidents insinuating themselves into it."
And at the very least, it's a nice break from everything else that's going on in the world.
"Presidents really do work hard," Golway said. "So maybe we shouldn't begrudge them an hour of fun."
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