North Carolina

White House sports salutes increasingly fraught with political drama

President Donald Trump holds a Patriots Super Bowl jersey next to coach Bill Belichick, left, and owner Robert Kraft, right, as he welcomes during a celebration at the White House in April for New England’s February Super Bowl win.
President Donald Trump holds a Patriots Super Bowl jersey next to coach Bill Belichick, left, and owner Robert Kraft, right, as he welcomes during a celebration at the White House in April for New England’s February Super Bowl win. TNS

You don’t have to be well-connected, well-heeled, well-bred or well-versed on the issues of the day. You don’t have to perform a heroic act or have served your country in the military or supported someone who did. You don’t have to be famous. You just have to win or more accurately belong to a prominent winning team. That usually suffices to earn a trip to the White House to be honored by the President of the United States and to bask in the glow of his praise and gentle teasing.

Bringing teams to the White House, a practice sporadically embraced since the end of the Civil War, has become so commonplace that champions in pro leagues and many college sports can anticipate being celebrated eventually at the president’s official residence in Washington, D.C. Until recently there was little downside to presidents associating with winners from the sports world.

“For a politician, sport is kind of a free pass,” says Dr. Gerry Gems, a professor of kinesiology at North Central College in Illinois, a past president of the North American Society of Sports History, and the author of, among other books, “Sports in American History.” “Most people accept sport as something good, I think. It’s a prominent part of popular culture. You have celebrities and heroes who exemplify American values.”

But the once-innocuous tradition of White House sports salutes is increasingly fraught with political drama. Now that Donald Trump is in the White House, there’s intensified talk of entire teams shunning an invitation and, conversely, of pre-emptive efforts to reduce the risk of snubs, including eliminating the ritual entirely. “Sports has always been political; now it’s even more overtly political,” Gems observes.

A sprinkling of pro players have stayed away from these White House ceremonies, occasionally exploiting the occasion to publicly highlight their political differences with the incumbent. Most who give the president the cold shoulder are decorously circumspect – like politicians forced to resign under pressure, athletes such at New England’s Tom Brady cited a desire to spend more time with their family.

Shortly after Trump’s November 2016 election, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ Richard Jefferson anticipated a change in attitude among NBA players, about three-quarters of whom are African-American. “Words cannot express the honor I feel being the last team to visit the White House,” he posted on Snapchat. There’s precedent for teams declining to participate due to scheduling problems, among them Roy Williams’ 2005 North Carolina squad, whose members had scattered by the time an invitation was extended. But, according to Matthew Costello, the White House Historical Association’s historian, so far no team has outright refused an offer to be honored.

Williams, clearly no Trump fan, was noncommittal about taking the Tar Heels to the White House after they won the 2017 NCAA basketball title. “The office of the presidency of the United States is the most fantastic place you can be,” Williams said when asked about a visit. “But let me think on it. Again, I don’t know that we’re going to get invited. I really don’t.” Williams was unavailable for comment while traveling, but spokesperson Steve Kirschner said, “My understanding is that Roy will go, but he hasn’t been asked.”

An invitation is nonetheless likely despite a change in presidential administrations. Last week Clemson confirmed a trip to the White House for a mid-June celebration of its football title. Dawn Staley, coach of the South Carolina women’s championship basketball squad, is not shy about anticipating a similar, still-unscheduled opportunity. “Yeah, I’m going to the White House,” Staley said last month. “It’s what national champions do.”

Similar invitations date to 1865, when President Andrew Johnson, a Raleigh native, honored a pair of semi-pro baseball squads from Brooklyn and Washington. Four years later President Ulysses Grant first welcomed a pro team, baseball’s Cincinnati Red Stockings. President Calvin Coolidge invited baseball’s Washington Senators to the White House before the 1924 World Series. The Senators won, but weren’t asked back until the eve of the ’25 World Series, which they lost.

Despite precedent, honoring teams remained uncommon until recently – although U.S. Olympic squads often got a tip of the presidential hat. Not until 1963, during John Kennedy’s tenure, did the first NBA team, his hometown Boston Celtics, get invited. Gerald Ford broke the ice for college basketball champions with undefeated Indiana in 1976. Jimmy Carter had the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers over for a visit in 1980, the first Super Bowl champs to earn that recognition.

Ronald Reagan in the 1980s and Barack Obama since 2000 were the most aggressive in bringing teams to the White House. Obama especially expanded the pool to honor champions skipped decades previously and to college teams from Olympic sports such as lacrosse, ice and field hockey and soccer.

Typical of the tenor of these encounters, when the 2009 NCAA champion North Carolina basketball squad visited, Obama recounted shooting hoops with the Tar Heels during a Chapel Hill campaign stop as Secret Service agents watched. “Now, when we played, everybody went out of their way to pass me the ball, set screens for me, let me take a shot,” Obama said teasingly. “There was one exception, though: Jack Wooten. (The walk-on) stole the ball from me; he blocked my shot; he fouled me once. Coach Williams had to remind him that there were a bunch of guys with guns around.”

Six years later, on a visit to the White House to salute Duke’s fifth NCAA title, Mike Krzyzewski and Obama engaged in an extended bit of laughter-leavened repartee. The coach even offered his fellow Chicagoan a scholarship to the K Academy, Krzyzewski’s late-spring fantasy camp, upon Obama’s completion of his second term in office. (He’s not coming this spring, anyway.) The president, informed players at the camp are all 35 or older, joked, “I’ll dominate.” Krzyzewski replied, to the delight of the East Room assemblage, “He’s not unlike the other 80 guys who come, and then they find out the truth.”

Given the level of respect accorded our presidents, it’s difficult to imagine individuals, let alone teams, using a White House visit to brace the nation’s chief executive with their version of more uncomfortable truths. Certainly decorum would be outraged. The mere sight of four female lacrosse players wearing casual footwear to the ceremony applauding Northwestern’s 2005 NCAA title was enough to propel the Chicago Tribune to scream in a headline: “You Wore Flip Flops To The White House?!”

Still, in a nation of ostensible equals, it wouldn’t be a bad thing if a bit of polite, unanticipated dissent penetrated a president’s cosseted inner orbit. Especially this president.

Sooner or later, belief and opportunity are bound to intersect at a Rose Garden sports ceremony. Just imagine if, say, Cleveland were to repeat next month as NBA champion. Then think of LeBron James and company returning to a familiar theme, shedding their shirts to reveal “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts.

“If somebody wanted to do that, consider the forum,” says Gems, the professor. “The whole nation would become immediately aware of what you just did. It would not only be on ESPN and the sports shows, it would be all over the newspapers and the news. It would be a huge issue.”

Also a lot more effective than staying away.