James and the Warriors were not alone in their sentiments and actions during the Trump era. So many Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles said they wouldn’t visit Trump’s White House that the petulant president, with his well-known fetish for crowd sizes, withdrew his invitation to them, too. The North Carolina men’s basketball championship team refused to entertain Trump. Many women’s champions weren’t extended invitations. While some college teams accepted invitations, professional teams such as the Washington Nationals and Capitals were so divided by Trump’s politics or behavior — or both — that some of their players (Sean Doolittle, Braden Holtby) opted to break with teammates accepting Trump’s offer.
It all filled me with glee. I called for the public snubs after Trump was elected. I said if you believe sports can serve as an elixir to the fears and ignorance that afflict us — such as racism, sexism and xenophobia — no athletic teams should visit his White House. After all, Trump gave succor to white supremacists, behaved misogynistically without apology and was particularly hostile to foreigners of color.
The blowback to his odious conduct reached a crescendo in the spring and summer. So many among us had enough of all the injurious “-isms” of the past four years — which were exposed in the wake of yet another Black man’s extrajudicial killing, to which the president again reacted with belligerence — that we took to the streets. Athletes such as the Boston Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and the Indiana Pacers’ Malcolm Brogdon walked off courts and playing fields and into the protests.
“The scale of protest and public expression of political conviction in sport that we witnessed during the last year of the Trump presidency is unprecedented,” John Jay College sociologist Lucia Trimbur, author of the paper “Taking a Knee, Making a Stand: Social Justice, Trump America, and the Politics of Sport,” emailed me this month. “And though athletes have always protested, more athletes than ever intervened to demonstrate they no longer want to be implicated in the myth that sport is apolitical. Rather, they’ve illustrated that there is tremendous work athletes can do and power athletes hold in shaping social circumstances.”
Which is why James and others of his ilk should curb their enthusiasm before accepting another White House invitation, no matter that they often campaigned for the man who’ll shortly inhabit it.
For over the past few years, athletes turned their heretofore mostly pro forma visits to the White House into political statements that resonated beyond sports pages and broadcasts. They’ve explained themselves. Laid down the gauntlet. Doolittle didn’t offer a tepid excuse for staying away from the White House, as Michael Jordan did in 1991, when, after skipping a visit with George H.W. Bush, he said he wanted to spend his days off with his family. Doolittle cited, among other things, Trump’s racialized nativist policies that were antithetical to the work Doolittle and his wife, Eireann Dolan, have done with refugees seeking a better chance at life.
Golden State burned Trump and his policies by announcing its title-winning 2017 team would celebrate “equality, diversity and inclusion” rather than visit his White House. One of its then-players, David West, explained further that he and his teammates wanted to make a statement against what they saw as Trump’s trampling of human rights.
Megan Rapinoe and her teammates on the U.S. women’s national soccer team cited Trump’s anti-LGBTQ stances as reasons they dismissed any overture to celebrate their latest World Cup title at the White House.
“Should athletes and teams return to the White House under a Biden presidency? It’s complicated,” wrote University of Louisville professor Evan Frederick, who last summer published “ ‘I’m Not going to the f***ing White House’: Twitter Users React to Donald Trump and Megan Rapinoe,” a study of social media’s reaction to the spat between Rapinoe and Trump. “How do you justify an endorsement of a newly-elected President until meaningful action is taken to address systemic issues that exploit, disenfranchise, and adversely impact people of color?”
Much of the celebration from James and other like-minded athletes this month was due more to the apparent defeat of another -ism — Trumpism — than the victory of a ticket made up of Barack Obama’s vice president and Kamala D. Harris, who will be the first woman in the vice presidency as well as the first descendant of a mother from India and a Black man from Jamaica. As lifelong social justice fighter Angela Davis argued last year: “I don’t see this election as being about choosing a candidate who will be able to lead us in the right direction. It will be about choosing a candidate who can be most effectively pressured into allowing more space for the evolving anti-racist movement.”
Thus, with Biden’s win came relief. On the same day that Biden and Harris gave their acceptance speeches, the Nationals almost immediately invited Biden to throw out 2021’s first pitch, joining a tradition nearly every sitting president except Trump has participated in when Washington has had a big league team.
But relief can’t breed complacency. If James and other athletes are sincere in their advocacy for immigrant rights, their fight against voter suppression, their promotion of a return to ample federal government support for public education, they should continue to use their White House invitations — which seek to use them to score political points — to make points of their own. Hold the next occupants of the White House accountable to their promises. Don’t rollick with a President Biden who would have in his cabinet Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago whose city, in full antithesis to Black athletes’ protests of racist policing, suppressed police dash-cam video of Chicago cops gunning down unarmed Black teen Laquan McDonald. Keep in mind Davis’s tepid justification for supporting such a ticket: as just the most likely candidates to be influenced to do the right things.
Or, as Frederick concluded to me via email, “I don’t think we can so quickly give in to conventions of the past for the sake of good PR.”
It is time that the reward shouldn’t be from the White House to the athletes for a job well done but the other way around.