(Reuters) - New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft downplayed the growing number of his players who have said they will boycott a visit to the White House, saying on Monday that it is America and people are free to do what they want.
At least six Patriots players have publicly said they will not make the trip to the White House - a longstanding tradition among pro sports teams after winning a championship - and some cited U.S. President Donald Trump as their reason.
Kraft, a Trump friend and supporter who attended the presidential inauguration last month, said on NBC's "Today" show that players were able to make up their own minds and added that members of the team have skipped the visit in the past.
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In 2015, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady cited a "family commitment" when he declined an invitation to be feted at the White House by former President Barack Obama after winning the fourth of his five Super Bowl titles.
"It's interesting, this is our fifth Super Bowl in the last 16 years, and every time we've had the privilege of going to the White House, a dozen of our players don't go. This is the first time it's gotten any media attention," said Kraft.
"Some of the players have the privilege of going (to the White House) in college because they're on national championship teams. Others have family commitments. But this is America. We're all free to do whatever's best for us. We're just privileged to be in a position to be going."
Patriots tight end Martellus Bennett, safety Devin McCourty, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Chris Long, running back LaGarrette Blount and defensive tackle Alan Branch have all said they will not visit the White House with their teammates.
Bennett touched off the controversy following the Patriots 34-28 overtime Super Bowl win over the Atlanta Falcons saying he would not be attending the White House reception.
"I haven't thought about it. I am not going to go,” Bennett said. "I can elaborate later on in life."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Frank Pingue)