UPDATE from the Associated Press: The New England Patriots are taking issue with a New York Times photo comparison that suggested a significantly smaller turnout for a Super Bowl celebration at the White House with President Donald Trump than one two years ago with President Barack Obama.
The Times on Wednesday tweeted an Associated Press photo of the Patriots standing behind Obama on the south side of the White House in 2015. Stairs on either side of the main group were filled with people. The tweet compared it with a Times photo taken Wednesday showing both staircases empty.
The Patriots responded on Twitter that the photos lack context, saying football staff sat on the South Lawn instead of standing on the stairs this year.
The Times tweeted an update saying that the Pats told them fewer players attended this year, but the total delegation was about the same.
Original report follows:
Like many sports teams before them, the New England Patriots visited the White House where they met with President Donald Trump on Wednesday afternoon to celebrate their Super Bowl victory. But two dozen or more members of the team, including quarterback Tom Brady, were not on hand, and some of them explicitly cited politics as their reason.
The visit came the same day that a former Patriot, Aaron Hernandez, hanged himself in prison, where he was serving a life sentence for murder.
Trump joined what appeared to be several dozen players on the South Lawn of the White House. The Boston Globe reported that 34 players attended.
Trump heaped praise on the Patriots — "No team has been this good for this long." He also could not resist making allusions to his campaign.
"With your backs against the wall, and the pundits — good old pundits, boy they're wrong a lot aren't they? — saying you couldn't do it, the game was over, you pulled off the greatest Super Bowl comeback of all time."
Pablo Martinez Monsivais | Associated Press; Al Drago | New York Times
Trump singled out several players, including wide receiver Danny Amendola, calling for them to raise their hands for acknowledgment. But Amendola was one of those who was not present.
Trump explicitly thanked coach Bill Belichick for writing a letter before the election praising him.
"Whether you're trying to win a Super Bowl or rebuild our country, as coach Belichick would say, 'There are no days off.'"
Trump was presented with the usual ceremonial jersey, with the number 45 and "Trump" on the back, as well as a helmet.
DID NOT ATTEND
Brady, running back LeGarrette Blount, defensive end Chris Long, defensive tackle Alan Branch, linebacker Dont'a Hightower, tight end Martellus Bennett and safety Devin McCourty all previously said they would not go to the ceremony.
Brady made the announcement on Wednesday morning, in a statement published by ESPN, saying he had family matters to attend to. He also skipped his team's visit with President Barack Obama at the White House, in 2015, citing family issues.
Blount in a radio interview on "The Rich Eisen Show," said, "I just don't feel welcome in that house."
Bennett told reporters after the Super Bowl: "It is what it is. People know how I feel about it. Just follow me on Twitter." The outspoken Bennett had joked that he might move to outer space after Trump was elected.
McCourty, a team captain, told Time magazine: "Basic reason for me is I don't feel accepted in the White House. With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won't."
Both Bennett and McCourty last fall raised their fists in protest during the national anthem for one game. At the time, athletes in various sports were protesting racial oppression in the country.
Branch told the Boston Globe that he was skipping the event because he was disturbed by Trump's sexist comments captured in an Access Hollywood video.
Hightower told ESPN, "Been there, done that," having visited with a championship Alabama team.
Amendola thanked Trump "for the shout out" and said he had a funeral to attend.
GRONKOWSKI MAKES HIS MARK
Even before the official ceremony began, the colorful tight end Rob Gronkowski found a way to make a splash, a skill he is well known for.
In the middle of press secretary Sean Spicer's briefing, Gronkowski appeared from backstage and said, "Need some help?" Spicer looked surprised, then replied, "I think I got this, but thank you," and Gronkowski left the stage.
TIES TO TRUMP
Perhaps no other NFL team has as close an association with Trump as the Patriots.
Just before the election, Trump claimed that he had the support of Brady and Belichick. Brady, who displayed a "Make America Great Again" cap in his locker during the campaign, never explicitly endorsed Trump, but they have socialized. Trump also cited a supportive letter he had received from Belichick.
At a rally in New Hampshire just before the election, Trump quoted Brady: "'Donald, I support you, you're my friend and I voted for you." But Brady's wife, Gisele Bundchen, denied they were Trump supporters.
Disclosures filed with the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday showed that the Patriots' owner, Robert Kraft, contributed $1 million to Trump's inauguration festivities. The two men are close friends and have appeared side-by-side frequently since Trump took office.
Other athletes have skipped the trip over the years, many for personal reasons, but others with politics as the explicit motive.
Kraft was dismissive of news media interest in the players' not attending this year's ceremony, telling "the "Today" show: "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.
"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."
Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas declined to visit the Obama White House in 2012, saying in a statement: "I believe the federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties and property of the people." Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk cited his opposition to abortion as the reason for skipping a 2013 visit.
Presidents for years have invited sports figures to the White House, but the tradition of honoring championships teams there solidified under Ronald Reagan.