Sport has no safe break from politics when title-winning athletes visit the White House – KGET 17

WASHINGTON (AP) – President Calvin Coolidge wasn’t as big a baseball fan as his wife, Grace. But even Silent Cal was caught up in the excitement of the Washington Senators’ unexpectedly successful season in 1924. After the team won the American League pennant, the players swung by the White House to shake Coolidge’s hand and take pictures.

It was the start of what would eventually become a tradition of winning athletes visiting the president, and it will continue Friday when Joe Biden hosts the championship men’s and women’s basketball teams.

But what began as a nonpartisan rite of passage has become increasingly entangled in politics, a shift somewhat tied to the presidency of Bill Clinton.

Tom Lehman, a professional golfer, declined an invitation from the White House and described Clinton as “a baby killer who avoids the draft.”

“That’s when it really started,” said Fred Frommer, a former Associated Press journalist who has covered sports history and politics.

There have been scattered protests since — a member of the Baltimore Ravens, for example, refused to visit the rest of his football team because President Barack Obama supported abortion rights — but the clashes have widened under President Donald Trump.

When members of the Golden State Warriors suggested they would decline a visit to the White House after winning the NBA title, Trump announced that the invitation was being withdrawn.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 have begun to face questions about whether they are willing to visit the White House. Frommer, who wrote the book about Washington and baseball, “You Gotta Have Heart,” said the trips became “a bit of a litmus test.”

Biden, who has promised to lower the temperature in Washington, has largely avoided such confrontations. But sparks flew in preparation for Friday’s road game with the Louisiana State women’s team.

After the Tigers won the NCAA Championship this year, First Lady Jill Biden suddenly suggested that a second invitation be extended to the winning team, the Iowa Hawkeyes.

LSU star Angel Reese called the idea a “JOKE” and said she would rather visit Obama and his wife Michelle. LSU’s team is predominantly 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’ve worked all year for everything.”

Nothing came of the first lady’s idea, and only the Tigers were invited (and only the Connecticut champion on the men’s side) Reese ended up saying she wouldn’t skip visiting the White House.

“I’m a team player,” Reese said. “I’ll do what’s best for the team.”

Although Reese didn’t decline the invitation, another group of champions will skip the White House entirely. Georgia’s national soccer team has announced that it will not be able to make it next month due to a scheduling conflict.

Coach Kirby Smart insisted the decision had nothing to do with politics, saying the call conflicted with a youth camp being held around the same time.

But who attends and who doesn’t is being watched closely in the country’s charged political atmosphere.

“Sports is 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 under the surface.”

The politicization of the White House visit overlapped with what Boykoff describes as “the era of athlete empowerment.” At a time when the country has experienced broad social movements, such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, athletes feel more confident using their platforms to share political messages and can use social media as a mouthpiece.

“We are in a new era now,” he said.

Boykoff said White House events were once considered a “family photo opportunity,” offering presidents a chance to show their lighter side. But given the hyperpolarization of the country, he said, the tradition may eventually run its course. And athletes may want a platform for themselves.

“It wouldn’t be surprising if they show up at the White House and have something to say, maybe even stop the proceedings,” he said.

Most of these visits were memorable for the more entertaining moments.

Harry Carson of the NFL’s New York Giants threw a bucket of popcorn at President Ronald Reagan’s head in 1987, emulating their tradition of dousing the coach with a bucket of Gatorade after a victory.

In 2021, Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Joe Kelly showed up at the White House wearing a mariachi jacket he took off a musician.

And just last month, Biden was presented with a helmet by the Air Force Academy football team. The president laughed.

With his job, he said, “I might need that helmet.”


Associated Press news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

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