Rooney says his recent appearance at the Christmas party was entirely nonpolitical. “It was purely a decision to take my family to see the White House,” he told me after a recent training session. “It’s such a historic building, probably one of the most historic buildings in the world, and to have the opportunity to take my kids was something we felt we couldn’t turn down.”
In the past, that argument would have ended the conversation — or more likely it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone to ask for a rationale in the first place. But that was before the president attacked Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem and disinvited both the Golden State Warriors and the Philadelphia Eagles because players had said they wouldn’t attend. Now, any public figure who receives a White House invitation has to square being honored by the president with being honored by this president.
That tension is even more acute for someone playing for a team in Washington, D.C., whose majority-Democratic residents are basically political seismographs, sensitive to even the smallest tremors coming from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Indeed, when the news about Rooney’s visit broke, Pablo Maurer, the United beat writer for sports website the Athletic, tweeted that he was “real conflicted on this.” If merely having a Make America Great Again hat in his locker was enough to sour some New England Patriots fans on Tom Brady, how would the United faithful respond to Rooney visiting the president at home?
“Having fans in high places is never a bad thing, for any sport,” argues Andrew Mack, a leader of La Barra Brava, one of the three organized groups of fans that support D.C. United. (Like teams in Europe and South America, Major League Soccer teams have fan groups with official chants, flags and stadium sections.) “It’s not that I don’t care deeply about politics,” he explains. “But in my mind, this is the visit of a player to a fan.”
James Lambert — president of the Screaming Eagles, D.C. United’s largest supporters’ club, with more than 1,100 members — agrees. “There’s a difference,” he points out, “between being used as a prop — standing next to him and shaking hands — and just being at an event.” He concedes that “plenty of things in the Trump White House that normally wouldn’t be political events have been turned into political events,” but to him, it’s obvious that Rooney’s case didn’t fit that description. If Rooney didn’t intend the visit to be political, then why should anyone make it political?
It’s a fair question. Steve Birnbaum, star defender for D.C. United, has been to the White House Easter Egg Roll three times, under Barack Obama and Trump. He told me he didn’t see it as a political event: “It’s an honor just to be there.” When I asked Rooney if he was aware of the clamor surrounding athlete visits to the Trump White House, he was noncommittal, as athletes usually are when asked about such things: “I know a lot of people in the States have an opinion for the president or against the president, and that’s their personal choice. It’s not my choice.”
Joshua Robinson, co-author of “The Club: How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports,” suspects Rooney may not have understood the weight of a White House visit. “Athletes are not as politically engaged in the U.K. the same way they are in the U.S.,” he told me. Even with teams that have a political alignment, as some European clubs do, “there’s a distance between the athletes and the communities they represent. These guys live in a bubble.”
Soccer in America lives in a perennial fight for oxygen, and its continued survival is never assured. Like almost everyone affiliated with professional soccer in America, Lambert is primarily concerned with broadening the appeal of the game, and that, he says, means “it’s been a goal of supporters’ clubs to keep politics out. You don’t want to shut out anyone from the joy and excitement, from the things that keep us coming back.” The Screaming Eagles define their approach as “all welcome, all United.” It may sound simplistic, Lambert allows, but supporters work hard to maintain that inclusivity. For them, team tribalism trumps political tribalism. It’s the key to growing the sport they love.
Refuges from politics are hard to come by lately, and the avowed goal of D.C. United and their supporters is to create a space where politics can be left at the door. “We can be different and disagree but still be unified in support of our team,” says Mack. “At games, the Barra has people representing 50 different nationalities, every kind of sexual orientation, political stance, walk of life, all singing the same songs. It’s chaotic, but it’s chaotic in the way the United States is chaotic.”
Not everyone, however, is able to completely separate politics from sports. “I live and breathe politics. Sports is a way to shut that off for a couple of hours,” says Chad Smith, a longtime D.C. United season-ticket holder who works for an anti-Trump organization. “But at the same time we can’t ignore what’s going on in this country.”
Smith doesn’t begrudge Rooney a visit to the White House, or Barron Trump a visit with Rooney. Still, it irks him. “He really seems to be embracing America and the club. It’s great for the team and great for the city, but it’s also a weird time now for the city. Even [an] ... Easter egg roll is a tough call now, and that’s insane,” he says — and adds: “It should be a tough call.”
Samuel Ashworth is a writer in Washington.