The NHL champion Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House on Tuesday, a move that seemed to many like a deliberate slap in the face of the black athletes whom the president had been attacking on Twitter and in public appearances for the past several weeks.
The assembled Penguins players were all white; the lone nonwhite player on the championship squad, a black Canadian named Trevor Daley, could not attend due to scheduling conflicts. And then at the very end of the event, Trump said something that sounds like boilerplate — but, in context, was kind of absurd.
“You are true, true champions — and incredible patriots,” Trump said.
The line was a not-so-subtle swipe at NFL players like former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who kneel during the national anthem to protest police violence, as well as the 2017 NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who had refused to attend their White House visit in protest. But describing the Penguins as “incredible patriots” really gives away the game here: Most of the Pittsburgh Penguins squad aren’t American patriots, because they aren’t American at all.
Ten of the 23 players on the Pittsburgh Penguins roster during the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals were American. The majority hailed from elsewhere, specifically Canada and a grab bag of cold European countries (Russia, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland). The fact that they play for an American NHL team does not magically turn them into American patriots; typically, they play for their home country during the Olympics.
Calling an all-white assembly of mostly foreign hockey players patriots, in clear contrast to the group of African-American athletes that the president has blasted, suggests the real issue here isn’t love for America. It’s how well the athletes fit in to Trump’s vision of America — one in which black athletes shut up about racism and perform the sort of patriotic spectacle that Trump likes.