Sports no sure respite from politics when title-winning athletes visit the White House
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Calvin Coolidge wasn't as big a baseball fan as his wife, Grace. But even Silent Cal got swept up in the excitement of the Washington Senators' unexpectedly successful season in 1924. After the team clinched the American League pennant, the players swung by the White House to shake hands and pose for pictures with Coolidge.
It was the beginning of what would eventually become a tradition of victorious athletes visiting the president, and it'll continue on Friday when Joe Biden hosts the championship men’s and women’s college basketball teams.
But what started as a nonpartisan rite of passage has become increasingly tangled up in politics, a shift that some peg to Bill Clinton's presidency.
Tom Lehman, a professional golfer, declined a White House invitation and described Clinton as “a draft dodging baby killer.”
“That’s really when it started,” said Fred Frommer, a former Associated Press journalist who has written about the history of sports and politics.
There were scattered protests after that — a member of the Baltimore Ravens, for example, refused to visit with the rest of his football team because President Barack Obama supported abortion rights — but clashes proliferated under President Donald Trump.
When members of the Golden State Warriors suggested they would spurn a White House visit after winning the NBA title, Trump announced that the invitation was being withdrawn. Some of the players instead visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with local students.
More and more athletes started facing questions about whether they were willing to visit the White House. Frommer, who wrote "You Gotta Have Heart," a book about Washington and baseball, said trips became “a bit of a litmus test."
Biden, who has promised to turn down the temperature in Washington, has largely avoided such clashes. But sparks flew in preparation for Friday's visit with the women's team from Louisiana State.
After the Tigers won the NCAA championship this year, first lady Jill Biden made an offhand suggestion that a second invitation should also be extended to the team they defeated, the Iowa Hawkeyes.
LSU star Angel Reese called the idea “A JOKE" and said she would rather visit with Obama and his wife, Michelle. The LSU team largely is Black, while Iowa's top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.
“At the beginning we were hurt. It was emotional for us," Reese told ESPN in a subsequent interview. "Because we know how hard we worked all year for everything.”
Nothing came of the first lady's idea, and only the Tigers were invited (and only champion Connecticut on the men's side) Reese ultimately said she wasn't going to skip the White House visit.
“I'm a team player," Reese said. "I'm going to do what's best for the team.”
While Reese didn't turn down the invitation, another group of champions will be skipping the White House altogether. Georgia's football team said it could not make it next month because of a scheduling conflict.
Coach Kirby Smart insisted that the decision had nothing to do with politics, saying the invitation conflicted with hosting a youth camp around the same time.
But who attends and who doesn't is closely watched in the country's charged political atmosphere.
“Sports are politics by other means,” said Jules Boykoff, a political science professor at Pacific University in Oregon. “Sometimes it’s very obvious, and sometimes it’s buried beneath the surface.”
The politicization of White House visits has overlapped with what Boykoff describes as the “athlete empowerment era." At a time when the country has experienced sweeping social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, athletes feel more confident using their platforms to share political messages, and they can use social media as a bullhorn.
“We’re in a new era now,” he said.
Boykoff said White House events were once considered a “family friendly photo opportunity,” offerin presidents a chance to show their lighter side. But given the country’s hyperpolarization, he said, the tradition may eventually run its course. And athletes may want the platform for themselves.
“It wouldn’t be surprising if they show up at the White House and have something to say, maybe even interrupt the proceedings,” he said.
Most of these visits have been memorable for more playful moments.
Harry Carson of the NFL's New York Giants dumped a bucket of popcorn on President Ronald Reagan’s head in 1987, mimicking their tradition of dousing the coach with a Gatorade bucket after a win.
In 2021, Los Angeles Dodgers’ pitcher Joe Kelly showed up at the White House in a mariachi jacket that he got off a musician.
And just last month, Biden was presented with a helmet by the Air Force Academy's football team. The president chuckled.
With his job, he said, “I may need that helmet.”
Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.