Last Tuesday, President Barack Obama welcomed the 1972 Miami Dolphins, the only undefeated team in National Football League history, to the White House. Why would the president in 2013 honor a team that won the Super Bowl way back on Jan. 14, 1973?
The NFL Network, the league’s official media outlet, explained it this way: “It took over 40 years, but the 1972 Dolphins finally got to visit the White House. The team hadn’t visited the White House back in 1973 following their Super Bowl victory because then-President Richard Nixon was in the midst of the Watergate scandal.”
Likewise, ABC News reported the Dolphins “were never hailed at the White House because President Richard Nixon was immersed in the Watergate scandal.” Other media outlets echoed that claim.
Prior to the event, Alexis Simendinger of Real Clear Politics wrote, “What Richard Nixon let get away, Obama seeks to honor this week.”
So last week, President Obama finished the story. The wandering, perfect Children of Miami came home from their 40 years in the desert to enter the Promised Land (aka the White House).
But there was a problem with this narrative: The first Super Bowl-winning team to be invited to the White House was the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers.
Although missing from its initial press release, the White House acknowledged this after the event: “It did not become common practice for Super Bowl champions to visit the White House until after 1980.” This historical fact also was not missed by The Washington Post or CNN, but the Nixon snub narrative made that fact a footnote to the perfect political backstory to the last perfect image of the only perfect NFL season. The NFL Network, which writes the history of the league, continued with the “snubbed because of Watergate” justification in a posting on NFL.com well into Wednesday morning, as the story faded out of the news cycle.
The bitter irony of the Nixon-blaming narrative is that NFL Films has called Nixon “probably our most football-crazy president” and someone who called the Super Bowl-winning coach every year “because he genuinely loved football.” Even the Nixon-hating Hunter S. Thompson, in his political memoir Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, fondly recalled talking with Nixon about football in a one-on-one interview during the 1968 presidential campaign.
Rather than correct the historical error in football history, several conservative media outlets were quick to seize on the story about the three Dolphins who declined Obama’s White House invitation, most notably Manny Fernandez.
The genius of this invite on Obama’s part was that while the event seemed curious, it didn’t seem to be a particularly effective use of football as propaganda—and therefore not worthy of much note. Was Obama trying to make up for his comments about not letting his hypothetical son play football? Possibly, but the value of this photo op and the Nixon snub story was not in the short term, but the long term. From now on, every time an NFL team challenges the undefeated season record of the ’72 Dolphins, like the New England Patriots in 2007 or the Indianapolis Colts in 2009, the story and images of that perfect team reemerge and we see Don Shula being carried off the field or Larry Csonka smashing into the end zone. Now sports editors everywhere have a new indelible image to be looped into the news cycle of the most popular sport in America: Obama correcting the wrongs of the dishonored Nixon by honoring football perfection.