Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

On Wednesday the New York Times sports desk tweeted out two group photos of the New England Patriots at the White House, one from their post-championship visit with then-President Barack Obama in 2015, the other from yesterday’s visit with President Donald Trump. Lots of people, including us, jumped on the apparent sparseness of this year’s turnout, compared to the size of the team delegation from a near-identical angle two years ago.

As on Inauguration Day, the new administration faced photographic evidence implying that the current president is much less popular than his predecessor. Coupled with reports of extensive no-shows among Patriots players, it left low-hanging Sean Spicer jokes there for the taking.

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But when the pushback came this time, it came not from the White House press lectern but from the Patriots organization.

The Times tweet:

There’s a noticeable difference, but the Patriots had a legitimate gripe: The stairways are full for Obama and empty for Trump because the photos were taken at different times during the event. In 2015, team staff had gathered with the players to pose for cameras; in 2017, the photo was taken during the president’s speech, when the team staff members were out in the audience. The photos aren’t exactly showing the same thing.

The Times later issued an update, and sports editor Jason Stallman regretted the tweet:

The Patriots’ argument also downplayed the no-shows.

Team spokesman Stacey James told the Times that the reason only 34 players had attended, as opposed to nearly 50 two years before, was not the difference between President Obama and President Trump, but the difference between a team excited at winning their first championship in years and a team celebrating its second title in three years. In their first championship run, all under President George W. Bush, the Patriots told the Times that attendance had dropped from 45 players in 2002 to something like this year’s turnout in 2004 and 2005. From the article:

James said that one reason substantially fewer players showed up this time as compared to 2015 was that some veteran players did not see the need to go twice in three years.

James said, however, that the size of the Patriots’ full delegation for each trip to the White House has been roughly the same. Some photos of the ceremonies include support staff, he said, making the turnout appear bigger. That, he said, was the case in 2015.

On a phone call with me, James was insistent about context. When you have two championships close together, a lot of the players around for the first title voluntarily miss the visit for the second. That makes sense, but it doesn’t explain a significant number of the absences for this year. Players including Martellus Bennett, Chris Long, Alan Branch, Devin McCourty, and LeGarrette Blount had publicly said why they didn’t want to go to the White House, and it wasn’t because they found a second trip dull. Bennett and Long hadn’t won a Super Bowl before, nor had their fellow no-shows Dion Lewis, Malcom Brown, Shaq Mason, Vincent Valentine, Jonathan Freeny, and Cyrus Jones.

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That’s 11 players to whom the jaded-by-success explanation wouldn’t apply. Branch, who was on the roster for both championships, gave a specific reason to the Boston Globe:

“I have three daughters,” said Branch in an interview with the Globe, the first time he has provided a full explanation for his decision not to attend.

“I wouldn’t spend time away from my family to shake the hand of a guy I wouldn’t want to meet with or talk to,” Branch, who also has a son, added. “I can’t see myself going and then hanging out with my kids and pretending everything was all right.”

For a better comparison between photos, you could look at the one sent out by the team. Half an hour before those carefully worded complaints, the Patriots tweeted this:

Although the players might have passed on the ceremony, James told me that the flight down had more people. According to him, the chartered plane to D.C. carried 120 passengers, not including the Krafts, Malcolm Mitchell (who had traveled separately to receive an award), and any other outliers.

The Patriots’ tweeted photo reflects this. By my count, the Obama photo has a total of 121 people; the Trump one has 124. Using rough math, subtract the Patriots’ estimate of 40 support staff from 2015, the reported 34 players who showed up, Bill Belichick, his girlfriend Linda Holliday, the Krafts, a coaching staff of 14, and you’re left with about 30 other heads. Half the players didn’t show up, but someone took their places. According to James, those 30 were more support staff.

The Patriots were right about the photos being misleading, but the team’s spin on the White House attendance was misleading in turn. A lot of players skipped the visit; a significant group of them hadn’t won a Super Bowl before; and some who didn’t go openly said the reason was because of the White House’s tenants. Regardless, it provided an opportunity for America’s leader to take a shot at his preferred paper for hate-reading: