Awe and tension filled the air on that sunny afternoon in the Rose Garden four years ago this week. I could feel it, and so could everyone else on hand: The sense of celebration mixed with a gnawing worry for the future.
There stood LeBron James, regal in his double-breasted suit but forcing a smile, surrounded by the rest of his team, the N.B.A. champion Cleveland Cavaliers. In front of them, President Barack Obama held court, bestowing kudos and lightening the mood by cracking wise.
“Give it up to the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers,” Obama said, nodding to the fact that the Cavaliers’ win over the Golden State Warriors that spring was the first major sports championship for the city of Cleveland since 1964. “That’s right, I said ‘world champion’ and ‘Cleveland’ in the same sentence. That’s what we’re talking about when we talk about hope and change.”
It was Nov. 10, 2016. I’ll never forget it. Two days earlier, Donald J. Trump had defeated Hillary Clinton to win the presidency. I’d been following the Cavaliers closely then, city to city, game to game, working on a story about Cleveland’s then head coach, Tyronn Lue.
That’s how I found myself in the Rose Garden, on hand to witness a scene woven into the fabric of American sporting life: the honoring of a championship team by the nation’s chief executive.
Everything about that day felt surreal. In the morning, Obama had welcomed Trump to the White House for a short briefing. To watch Obama put aside the seriousness of that moment and then commune with James and the Cavaliers was to watch a president bathe in a sort of healing balm.
That was not a surprise. Obama’s bond with athletes, particularly with Black athletes like the ones who made up the bulk of the Cavaliers’ roster, was a hallmark of his presidency.
But it was more than that. The connection between presidents and athletes had long been cozy, defined by a sort of low-stakes ease. Nothing captured that relationship like Rose Garden ceremonies, which came to regularly honor teams from a wide variety of sports.
True, they were publicity stunts. But they also held meaning. For decades, such ceremonies had provided a chance for people of all political persuasions to set aside differences and bond over the succor of success and the history and power of the presidency.
But by 2016 the ease of such visits had become complicated, even for Obama. More, Trump was on the horizon. He had already started picking fights with athletes, leaning into the backlash against Colin Kaepernick, then the San Francisco 49ers quarterback who had just started his protests against police brutality and the mistreatment of Black people by kneeling during the national anthem.
As I watched Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. say goodbye to the Cavaliers, I remember being struck by the sense that the easy communion between athletes and the presidency was about to change in a way that might prove unalterable.
That communion has a deep history. Sports teams first visited the White House in 1865, when President Andrew Johnson welcomed baseball’s Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics. Still, it wasn’t until Ronald Reagan took office in 1981 that hosting sports champions at the Rose Garden became routine.
Reagan reveled in the joy of such moments. He hammed it up with the national champion Georgetown men’s basketball team, threw a pass to a wide receiver for Washington’s Super Bowl-winning football team and received a popcorn drenching from the New York Giants’ Harry Carson.
But as time passed and new presidents continued the tradition, the nation’s growing political divide crept in.
The golfer Tom Lehman turned down an invitation from Bill Clinton, whom Lehman called a “draft-dodging baby killer.” In 2012, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk, an opponent of abortion rights, refused to accompany his Super Bowl-winning team to visit Obama. That same year, Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, an avid backer of the conservative Tea Party, declined to accompany his Stanley Cup-winning teammates for their Rose Garden visit.
But whole teams turning down the White House?
Sure enough, angered by his policies and rhetoric, emboldened by the evolution in athlete activism, not a single N.B.A. championship winner visited Trump these last four years.
In 2017, after the Warriors won the title and the league and the White House were discussing a visit, Stephen Curry said he would not attend — prompting the president to bark back over Twitter: “Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team. Stephen Curry is hesitating. Invitation is withdrawn.”
Soon, James shot back with a tweet in Curry’s defense. He called the president a “bum,” and added: “Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!”
Some teams did visit. But others skipped it, were not invited or had invitations rescinded when it became clear few players would attend. Since 2016, none of the W.N.B.A. champions have gone to the White House. Same for North Carolina’s men’s N.C.A.A. championship basketball team, South Carolina’s title-winning women’s basketball team and the 2018 Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles. I could go on.
Trump was left with narrowing opportunities to play host. He feted the Alabama and Clemson football teams, and a few champions from mostly white, conservative-leaning sports like baseball and hockey. For a while, he could count on the New England Patriots, whose owner, Robert K. Kraft, and coach, Bill Belichick, are Trump supporters. After winning the Super Bowl at the end of the 2016 season, however, nearly half of the players steered clear of the White House. And when New England was victorious again two years later, the team didn’t visit at all.
So much for the days of easy communion.
It has been four hard years since that day of awe and tension in the White House. Will James, now having led the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2020 title, return with his new team to visit President Biden? Bank on it. Expect the W.N.B.A.’s Seattle Storm, who conquered their league title this year and endorsed Biden, to do the same, along with teams that didn’t back a candidate but focused instead on boosting voter registration and turnout.
But with large swaths of the country arguing, without evidence, that last week’s election was stolen, will conservative champions or players begin turning down visits to the Biden White House? That’s not hard to imagine.
It is impossible to say what will happen in future presidencies, with future generations of athletes. But for now, sadly, we can assume that the Rose Garden celebration of champions, once a chance to cast aside differences and revel together in greatness, will limp forward, scarred and fractured, same as America.
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