In Washington, we often talk about the game of politics. Since Donald Trump became president, the conversation has shifted from time to time to the politics of sports.
Yes, even the wonderful world of sports is feeling our political divisions in the United States. And as a result, hard-won national championships have come with a certain amount of angst.
That is because one perk of becoming the top team in a major sport — be it at the professional or collegiate level — has been what some would call a “victory lap” around the White House.
No, I am not talking here about athletes circling the executive mansion in their best running gear. What I am referring to is the tradition of White House receptions for the victors — a chance to mingle with the president and pose for a few pictures.
I had a chance to witness a few of these events as a White House reporter during the Bush and Obama administrations — all of them, admittedly, involving my beloved home town teams. There were lots of smiles, a few jokes from the president, a lovely buffet, and zero controversy.
All that has changed under Donald Trump. Some athletes now agonize over whether they should share a stage with the president. Some stay away.
The last team to be honored was the Boston Red Sox — the 2018 national baseball champion.
Now, there is no sport more American than baseball. It dates back to the 18th century and there are some of us who still follow our home teams like rabid fans overseas follow what they call football and we in the USA know as soccer.
So becoming World Series champion is a big deal. A very big deal. Barack Obama put it this way the last time he hosted a baseball championship team at the White House —- fittingly, it was the Chicago Cubs:
“I was in my hometown of Chicago on Tuesday, for my farewell address, and I said, sometimes it’s not just enough to change laws, you got to change hearts. And sports has a way, sometimes, of changing hearts in a way that politics or business doesn’t,” he said.
Obama went on to talk about the diversity of sports, and what that means for our country:
“And when you see this group of folks of different shades and different backgrounds, and coming from different communities and neighborhoods all across the country, and then playing as one team and playing the right way, and celebrating each other and being joyous in that, that tells us a little something about what America is and what America can be,” he emphasized.
Contrast that with the words of President Trump who has said that the 2017 white separatist marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia included “some fine people,” who has used the peaceful protests of some African-American football players as a political tool, and who has feuded with some of the country’s biggest sports stars.
Think of all that and maybe you can understand why some athletes would say “thanks, but no thanks” to an invitation to visit the Trump White House.
That is exactly what happened with the Boston Red Sox. At least ten players — all of them Latino or African-American — chose not to attend. So did the team’s manager, Alex Cora, who cited the Trump administration’s handling of hurricane relief efforts in his native Puerto Rico.
“It is personal,” one boycotting player told the Washington Post, “everyone has personal opinions.”
And so, while they were united on the playing field, the Sox were split when it came to attending a White House celebration hosted by President Trump. Roughly half the team went to the reception. All but one of the attendees was white.
The Red Sox have tried to play down the split but there is no denying that the prospect of a “feel-good” White House victory celebration— once welcomed by national champs — has become a time of reckoning for players and their coaches under the presidency of Donald Trump.
Occasionally in the past, individual athletes might skip a White House reception for various reasons. But now, entire teams are declining invitations, while others have had their offers rescinded.
Last year, when several members of the National Football League champion Philadelphia Eagles said they could not in good conscience meet with a president who they felt held racist and sexist views, the White House abruptly cancelled the event . A Trump spokeswoman called it “a political stunt” by the players.
The nation’s reigning national basketball champion — the Golden State warriors — is also on the White House “do not invite list.” Apparently, so are the last two Women’s National Basketball Association champs.
And then there are the college kids.
The Clemson Tigers showed up at the White House just days after clinching the national men’s college football title in early January. The event occurred during the long government shutdown and is best remembered, perhaps, for the buffet: an array of offerings from fast food chains served on silver trays.
But what may have been overlooked was the fact that while 70 players showed up, 42 of the 57 African-American members of the squad did not. According to the Root — an online news magazine that focuses on issues of importance to the black community — those who stayed away cited “their disdain for Trump’s divisive politics.”
And then we have the story of the University of Virginia Cavaliers.
UVA is located in Charlottesville — the bucolic college town that made national headlines in 2017 when white supremacists chose it as the site for an outpouring of hate and a counter-demonstrator was killed.
Last month, when UVA won the men’s national collegiate basketball title, Coach Tony Bennett quickly put out a statement saying his team would decline an invitation to celebrate its victory at the White House.
His message was diplomatically worded, citing logistical concerns… but clearly, the wounds of 2017 and the outrage over the president’s response were still fresh.
There was no outcry from UVA fans or alumni, and it appears the decision was made by the team itself with no influence from university officials.
Thankfully, perhaps, there was no public response from the White House.