No certain respite from politics as title-winning athletes visit the White House

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Calvin Coolidge wasn’t as big of a baseball fan as his wife, Grace. But even Silent Cal was swept up in the excitement of the Washington Senators’ surprisingly successful 1924 season. After the team clinched the American League pennant, the players came to the White House to shake hands and pose for photos with Coolidge.

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

But what began as a nonpartisan rite of passage has increasingly become entangled in politics, a shift some attribute to Bill Clinton’s presidency.

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

“That’s really when it all started,” said Fred Frommer, a former Associated Press reporter 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 the rest of his football team because President Barack Obama supported abortion rights – but the Clashes have proliferated 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they would decline a visit to the White House after winning the NBA title, Trump announced that the invitation was withdrawn. Some of the players instead visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture with local students.

More and more athletes began to wonder if they were ready to visit the White House. Frommer, who wrote “You Gotta Have Heart,” a book about Washington and baseball, said the trips had become “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 visit with the Louisiana State women’s team.

After the Tigers won the NCAA championship this year, first lady Jill Biden offhandedly suggested that a second invite 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 Obama and his wife, Michelle. LSU’s team is largely black, while Iowa’s top player, Caitlin Clark, is white, as are most of her teammates.

“At first we were injured. It was emotional for us,” Reese told ESPN in a later 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 finally declared that she was not going to skip the visit to the House White.

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

While Reese didn’t turn down the invite, another group of champions will skip the White House altogether. The Georgia soccer team said it won’t be able to attend next month due to a scheduling conflict.

Coach Kirby Smart insisted 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.

“Sport is political in other ways,” 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 visits to the White House has overlapped with what Boykoff describes as “the era of athlete empowerment.” At a time when the country has seen broad 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 mouthpiece .

“We are in a new era now,” he said.

Boykoff said White House events were once seen as a “family photo opportunity,” offering presidents a chance to show their lighter side. But given the country’s hyperpolarization, he said, the tradition could 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 were memorable for more playful times.

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 win.

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

And last month, Biden received a helmet from the Air Force Academy football team. The president chuckled.

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


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


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