After seemingly non-stop conflict during the Trump years, it’s no longer controversial for champion athletes to visit the White House now that Joe Biden has taken office, according to the Seattle Storm’s Sue Bird. The Storm won the WNBA championship last fall, and were due at the White House for a visit on Monday afternoon.
“I think for a very long time, up until 2016, going to the White House was an honour. It wasn’t necessarily political. It was to meet the president of the United States. The person who holds that office acknowledging your team’s success,” Bird told the AP. “It wasn’t political. I think that all shifted in 2016.”
Donald Trump regularly clashed with athletes during his time in office, especially athletes of colour who knelt during the national anthem to protest systemic racism, once saying he wished NFL owners would tell their players, “Get that son of a b**** off the field.”
Bird, along with numerous other WNBA athletes, has been an outspoken backer of Black Lives Matter and other social justice causes.
“Now that it’s back in a place where it’s considered an honour and you’re recognised by the highest office in the country is exciting, it’s fun,” she added. “It’s not just about meeting the president or hopefully the vice president is there. It’s about the whole experience of being in the White House. Having a day that’s about your team and celebrating what you’ve accomplished.”
Numerous different teams skipped their White House invite during the Trump years, including members of the New England Patriots football team in 2019. Patriots safety Duron Harmon said at the time he would rather meet Barack Obama.
“That would be dope,” he told The Washington Post. “Hey, Obama, come holler at me. We love you over here, man.”
Others were even more pointed. The Pats were also invited to the White House in 2017, but free safety Devin McCourty, who is Black, said he didn’t feel comfortable going.
“I don’t feel accepted in the White House ... With the president having so many strong opinions and prejudices, I believe certain people might feel accepted there while others won’t,” he said at the time.
In 2018, the NBA’s Golden State Warriors and NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles also snubbed Mr Trump, though with the latter the former president himself said he cancelled their invitation.
Philadelphia mayor Jim Kenney tore into the president for the decision, calling him "a fragile egomaniac obsessed with crowd size and afraid of the embarrassment of throwing a party to which no one wants to attend,” while praising the victorious Eagles because they "represent the diversity of our nation — a nation in which we are free to express our opinions."
Instead of meeting with Mr Trump, the Warriors had a private event with Mr Obama instead, after previously attending a White House tour in 2015 after their Finals win.
“These are outstanding young men,” Mr Obama said of the team at the time. “And some of them I’ve met before. Steph I’ve gotten to know a little better. They’re just — they’re the kind of people you want representing a city, representing the NBA, and the kind of people that you want our kids to be rooting for.”
Mr Trump did have some cordial relations with athletes during his tenure though. He’s a friend of the leadership of the Patriots, including coach Bill Belichik and franchise owner (and fellow billionaire) Robert Kraft, and quarterback Tom Brady, long the team’s biggest star before leaving for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was pictured with a MAGA hat and has golfed with the former president.
Even when athletes did attend the White House to meet with Mr Trump, it had a way of causing a stir. In 2019, images of Mr Trump grinning in front of a huge spread of fast food burgers laid out for the visiting NCAA football champion Clemson Tigers went viral.