WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amid the growing protest by U.S. athletes against police brutality with them kneeling for the national anthem, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said that he would not be offended if any of his players took a knee in protest.
“As we’ve stated all along, we understand the circumstances surrounding this visit and we’re very respectful of anyone’s right to protest or demonstrate as they see fit.”
Sullivan who coached the Stanley Cup Champions was speaking at the White House this week after he and his team visited President Donald Trump.
Sullivan’s statement comes during the rift between Trump and some black athletes in the country. This protest initially began last season, when NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sat, then took a knee during the National Anthem, protesting police brutality and social injustices for people of color.
Claiming that the team’s visit wasn’t meant to be political, Sullivan said he felt the “visit when great.”
“I can’t tell you how proud we are of this group of players and what they’ve accomplished over the last two seasons,” Sullivan said. “This has been a part of the celebration — and the commitment they’ve made to the championship.”
After the 2017 NBA champions The Golden State Warriors, rejected an invitation to attend the White House, various reactions were seen everywhere, particularly social media. The same week of a standoff between the NBA community and the president, the Penguins accepted the invitation to the White House, which drew a significant amount of backlash.
President Trump, who was escorted, along with the First Lady, into the event by Penguins owners, Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux, commented that “everybody wanted” to visit the White House, despite the Warriors not choosing to attend. He mentioned previous visits from the New England Patriots, the Chicago Cubs, and the Clemson Tigers, following their victories.
Trump also discussed the North American Free Trade Agreement deal and implied that Burkle could help renegotiate it. “Ron, how about negotiating some of our horrible trade deals that they’ve made?,” he said. “Here's what I want, I want to get him. Oh, I would love to have Ron Burkle.”
“It’s great to have you, but I really mean that if you want to get involved with negotiating NAFTA, I like it. Because, we’re negotiating NAFTA, Ron,” he continued. “Of course you may not like that. You may be on the other side — You’re not on the other side of NAFTA are you, Ron?” Burkle seemingly responded, “I am not.” The NAFTA remarks drew laughter, clapping, and cheers from the audience.
President Trump had been leaning more toward scrapping the 23-year-old NAFTA deal if his administration is “going to make it good”, according to a Forbes exclusive interview on Tuesday.
Sullivan, in response to Trump’s NAFTA comments, said the president “has the right to speak” however he chooses to.“I think he was trying to make a joke,” he said. “He obviously has a personal relationship with our team owner and for me, it is what it is.”
The president had a more solemn and serious tone when making remarks about the California wildfires from earlier this week, as well as the Las Vegas shooting and the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. “I wanted to say a few words to the people of California — a great state — especially those in Napa and Sonoma, as they deal with the tragic loss of life and property to devastating wildfire.” he said. The president also said he spoke with Governor Jerry Brown (D-Calif.) about the federal government offering support to the state.
A small, yet important aspect of the visit was noticeably missing at the end of the program. Previous championship teams gifted the current president with a personalized jersey or some sort of a memento, however, Trump didn’t publicly receive a gift. When asked whether the team gave Trump a gift, Sullivan said that the team did give a gift, but didn’t specify what it was. In their 2009 visit, the team gifted former president Barack Obama with a personalized jersey. Former president George H. W. Bush was also given a personalized jersey during the team’s visit in 1991.