Sports take: No athlete is bigger than the White House

President Donald J. Trump visits with the NCAA champion Lady Bears on Monday at the White House. Photo courtesy of Baylor photography

By Cameron Stuart | Reporter

At some point in America’s history, sports and politics became so intertwined that neither became a source of release from the other. In fact, somewhere along the line, politics began to affect sports and their fan base, loyalties and rules. This week, the NCCA champion Lady Bears basketball team accepted the trip to the White House offered to every major champion in American sports, which has incredibly become a rarity.

Like most other events that require a White House invitation, it’s filled mostly with pomp and circumstance without any real substance. With each passing team comes the same traditions — the team gets a meal (or a fast-food extravaganza) and a photo-op while the president gets a commemorative jersey and achingly reads off a summary of the team’s accomplishments, acting like he watched the games.

For decades, it was simply a day out. It was a chance to travel with your teammates one more time, take an extensive tour of the White House that so few get to, and shake hands with the leader of the free world. In recent years, however, it has unfortunately become a political statement. All of the sudden, players are pressured to not take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity just so that they send kind of message that their political beliefs have something to do with the trip.

While the Lady Bears visited as the NCAA women’s basketball champions, their male counterparts from the University of Virginia turned down the offer, like the Villanova Wildcats did in 2018. Virginia coach Tony Bennett cited the fact that the Cavaliers have a few players finishing up their degrees and still a few more pursuing professional careers, so they would struggle to get the team together. Magically, this wasn’t an issue before 2018, and the Lady Bears somehow managed to get the team together even though they, too, have players finishing degrees — and Kalani Brown and Chloe Jackson gearing up for the WNBA season. That is to say, I’m not exactly buying this reasoning.

While Bennett and his Cavaliers hid behind that façade, other players and teams have not quite been as subtle. The Golden State Warriors declined a visit in 2017, instead deciding to “celebrate equality, diversity and inclusion” instead of visiting the White House, according to The Undefeated. I can’t imagine the type of over-the-top righteousness an organization even needs to write that, let alone publish it. Their reasoning clearly implies that the White House, one of the hubs of the bastion of democracy that is the United States would somehow not celebrate equality and diversity.

Too many teams have taken this same elitist approach and have seen the visit as one to pump-up the ego of the president rather than as a final team-building experience. A glaring example of the evolution of these skipped White House visits comes from Boston, where Bruins goalie Tim Thomas skipped the team’s visit in 2011 due to his conservative beliefs. In an editorial done by the Boston Globe, the staff ripped Thomas, saying the event was “non-political event” but that Thomas showed “a lack of respect for his team” by not going. The article goes on to call Thomas “deeply wrong” and said the whole incident was “a sad comment on the times when national institutions are reduced to fodder for political snapshots.” Not yet eight years later, the Globe seemed to change its tone on the same matter quite a bit. When American League MVP Mookie Betts declined the trip this year, one of the Globe’s senior-most columnists and associate editors, Renee Graham, quote tweeted the news and simply said: “MVP.” I guess time, and a new president in the Oval Office, heals all wounds.

Tim Thomas or Mookie Betts or the Virginia Cavaliers not visiting the White House will make no difference whatsoever in the political landscape in America. For all those athletes who won’t go with their teammates to the White House because they don’t agree with the president’s policies, I wonder: Do you make more of a statement by not going or being able to look straight into the president’s eyes and tell him how you feel. They have the opportunity that so few people in the world get and they squander it to be righteous. A team field trip to celebrate their accomplishments is no stage for political fodder. Politics and sports used to be separate entities and while politics is mixed into seemingly everything these days, this is no hill to die on. To those who place themselves over their team’s success in the name of unsubstantiated political ideologies: get over yourselves.