The United States has a long and storied history of sports teams and individual athletes visiting the White House and the sitting President, usually following a championship or a major accomplishment, such as performing well on the international stage. Just last week the Cleveland Cavaliers visited the White House where they were met by avid sports fan and Commander in Chief President Barack Obama. But, with the stunning recent election of Donald J. Trump to the presidency, one can’t help but wonder if this centuries old tradition may suffer a temporary hiatus.
It is hard to imagine someone like LeBron James, who actively campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Ohio, gracing the grounds of a Trump White House. It is equally hard to imagine many athletes of color or of diverse heritage, who tend to dominate the American sporting landscape, choosing to celebrate their championships with a man who many consider to be overtly racist.
A Brief History of Sports Teams Visiting the White House
A quick reading of sports history seems to indicate that following the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson was the first executive to invite sports teams to the White House. On August 30, 1865, Johnson hosted the amateur baseball clubs of the Brooklyn Athletics and the Washington Nationals. It is unclear if either team represented a championship from their respective leagues.
Ulysses S. Grant was the first sitting President to greet a professional sports team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball club in 1869. And as baseball morphed into the “national pastime” after the turn of the century, Calvin Coolidge became the first executive to welcome a World Series winner to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in 1924. Ironically, it would also be the only World Series win for the original Washington Senators.
In the realm of basketball, John F. Kennedy was the first President to welcome an NBA champion to the Rose Garden when the 1963 Boston Celtics, led by later civil rights activist Bill Russell, graced the grounds. Of a different political ilk, Bob Knight and the 32-0 Indiana Hoosiers became the first NCAA champion to meet a sitting President, albeit one not elected, in the person of Gerald Ford.
A few years after Knight and the Hoosiers met with Ford, Jimmy Carter became the first President to welcome a Super Bowl Champion to the White House when he hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1980. And beginning with the election of Ronald Regan in 1981, the tradition of inviting championship teams and honoring individual athletes was pretty much cemented.
Ironically, the man who sometimes likens himself to Reagan may signal the end of such a tradition. The invitations will continue to go out, no doubt, but how often will they be accepted?
Race in Sports versus Trump?
In 2015, according to racial equity activist Richard Lapchick, the NBA was comprised of 74.4 percent black players, 23.3 percent white players, 1.8 percent Latino players, and 0.2 percent Asian players. The NFL is very similar with 68 percent black players, and 28 percent white players. Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic players make up 4.36 percent of the league.
Major League Baseball is a little more complicated racially with only 8.2 percent of the players of African American decent as of 2014, but 41.2 percent of major league rosters are comprised of people of color with those of Latino heritage making up 29.3 of the players.
It is easy to imagine large numbers of players on future championship teams declining to meet with a President Trump. High profile athletes such as Tom Brady, Manny Ramirez, Larry Bird, and Michael Jordan have declined invitations to the White House in the past, but usually for innocuous reasons like “I’m busy” or “If he wants to see me, let him buy a ticket.” The more political protests have, for the most part, been reserved to offensive linemen or golfers. This may all change as more athletes of color may choose to express their political displeasure with a Donald J. Trump presidency by staying at home.