Since at least 1865, when the Brooklyn Atlantics and Washington Nationals baseball clubs were invited by President Andrew Johnson, making the trip to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. has been associated with the glamour of winning a national championship in American sports. Although the practice didn’t become a regular occurrence until the Reagan administration, being honored at the White House for winning a championship has become a long-standing tradition that most athletes seem to take great pride in.
But that moment has yet to come for the South Carolina Gamecocks women’s basketball team. It’s been more than six months since their championship win in April, and the White House has yet to extend them an invitation.
“We haven’t gotten an invitation yet, and that in itself speaks volumes,” Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley said in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “We won before those other teams won their championships. I don’t know what else has to happen.”
During SEC media day, Vanderbilt coach Stephanie White called it a “slap in the face” and Texas A&M coach Gary Blair, who was invited in 2011 after his championship win, agreed: “She deserves that honor, and her team — but, more importantly, the country — needs to see a women’s basketball team in the White House being recognized. That’s something that they’ve earned.”
The Associated Press also reported that the office of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, a former governor of South Carolina, recently said an invite would be coming later; however, college basketball season is fast approaching and the Gamecocks’ title defense will begin soon. So how long should the reigning champions have to wait?
Blair may be right about one thing: The country needs this. This is a time when protest and political expression have been heightened. And while some individual players have refused to accept an invitation as a form of political objection to the current administration, Staley made clear in April that the South Carolina women would attend if invited because, as she puts it, “that’s what national champions do” and national champions from every major sport this year have been doing it … sort of.
President Donald Trump has been visited by both the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots and the College Football Playoff champion Clemson Tigers. The 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs have been to the White House twice, going once during the end of President Barack Obama’s term and making a second trip for Trump in June. The Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins made the customary visit two weeks ago, and the North Carolina men’s basketball team was offered an opportunity to attend but declined because of a scheduling conflict.
The NBA champion Golden State Warriors at least had an invitation rescinded (it was never clear that the team was invited to the White House anyway) after star point guard Stephen Curry stated that he would not cast a team vote in favor of attending. In response to Curry, Trump stated that visiting the White House is considered “a great honor.” Are the women in South Carolina not worthy of such an honor?
Connecticut Sun power forward and ESPN women’s basketball analyst Chiney Ogwumike offers the perspective that women’s basketball is just not a priority for this government.
“The passions of this administration are just not the same as the previous administration, and it’s unfortunate,” Ogwumike said. “But I don’t think this was a jab or slight to the South Carolina team. Women’s basketball is always fighting for legitimacy and respect, and although we had a good year with the Final Four and [Mississippi State’s] Morgan William hitting a huge shot and watching the Lynx and the Sparks go back at it in the WNBA Finals, there are still some people who just aren’t as passionate about women’s basketball. Is it fair? No.”
A case could be made that women’s basketball is still on the back burner, as it has been for years in American sports. Still, snubbing these ladies feels like a missed opportunity to rewrite this administration’s narrative and include a group of people who have felt alienated and excluded since the beginning of Trump’s term of office.
In the current climate of our country, where racial and gender tensions are high, one would hope the White House could see the benefit of having the Gamecocks appear before the president and how that moment could bridge that gap to overturn the public perception that this current government spreads a message of divisiveness as opposed to unity. A genuine congratulatory moment with one of the greatest players in women’s basketball history — who coaches one of the most distinguished collegiate programs, which happens to hail from the same state that not two years ago was torn apart by a racially-driven mass shooting — could very well have been a grace note for this administration for both sports fans and women.
Geno Auriemma and the 2016 champion University of Connecticut Huskies made the trip six times during the Obama administration. Women aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s time this reality is accepted.