However, like most of the New England Patriots, who made the trip in April, Clemson chose not to pass up the opportunity Monday. “Nowadays everybody tries to make everything political,” Coach Dabo Swinney said last week on the “David Glenn Show.” “This isn’t a political trip. This isn’t a fundraiser for a certain party or candidate. This is a celebration of what our team achieved last year. It’s been a national tradition for a long, long time.”
“Most everybody” from the national championship team planned to attend, Swinney said, although some players are now in the NFL and were not able to do so. “They’re working. They’ve got a job,” Swinney said. “It’s up to each one of them to try to work it out with their particular teams if they want to try to come.”
Bob McNair, the Houston Texans owner who happens to be from South Carolina, happily enabled star quarterback Deshaun Watson and defensive tackle Carlos Watkins to attend by flying them to Washington. And Ben Boulware, a linebacker who signed with the Carolina Panthers, joined them.
It isn’t clear yet what North Carolina’s Tar Heels or the Warriors, who won the NBA championship Monday night, will do. Teams with smaller rosters and proportionally higher numbers of minority players may choose differently. UNC Coach Roy Williams was highly critical of the president’s Twitter habits during the ACC tournament. “You know, our president tweets out more bull—- than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. During the NCAA tournament, he preferred not to jinx his team by talking about it. And after the Tar Heels had won, he was more respectful of the honor, saying, “The office of the presidency of the United States is the most fantastic place you can be. I know one thing. We’re putting up a nice banner in the Smith Center that’s hard to get.”
Frank Martin, the South Carolina men’s coach and the son of Cuban political exiles, was outspoken about the honor. “We live in the United States of America,” he said during the NCAA tournament. “I’m not visiting an individual’s home. This is the way I look at it. It’s the way I express it to our team: We’re visiting the top building that represents the great country that’s given every single one of us an opportunity. That’s the way I would look at it.”
A’ja Wilson, who led the South Carolina women’s basketball team to the national title, and her coach, Dawn Staley, planned to revel in the moment. “I’ve never really been to the White House. It should be exciting to go with this group of girls,” Wilson said in April. ”We’re going to have fun, so I’m excited. Honestly, I’m just going to go and enjoy the moment, just take it all in. This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing, so why not enjoy it?”
There was really no doubt about the Patriots’ collective decision. Owner Robert Kraft and Coach Bill Belichick have been Trump boosters. Although he has called the president a friend, quarterback Tom Brady chose to skip the trip, though probably not for the same reason as some of his teammates who were vocal about their political feelings. The biggest controversy of the visit? A later-corrected New York Times tweet comparing the number of players who visited two years ago with this year’s group.
Prominent members of the Warriors and Cavs have made their feelings clear, but will those outweigh the chance to visit the president’s house? Curry famously disagreed when Kevin Plank of Under Armour, a company that has signed Curry to an endorsement deal, called Trump an “asset.” Said Curry, a frequent golfing partner of former president Barack Obama: “I agree with that description, if you remove the ‘et.’ ” Plank later explained to Curry that he meant that Trump would be good for business when Curry sought context for the remark and an assurance that Plank didn’t support Trump’s social agenda.
LeBron James campaigned for Hillary Clinton in Ohio and preferred not to talk about whether he’d visit the White House. “We’ll have to cross that road, I guess,” James said three days after the election. “We’ll see. I would love to have to cross that road.” He had stayed up until 4 a.m. watching election returns with his wife and described what he saw as “difficult.” “It’s very difficult seeing what happened not only in our state but our country. It is what it is,” he said. “That’s the past. We’ve got to live in the present and [figure out] how we can make the future better.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said he thinks it would be a mistake for NBA champions to boycott the Trump White House.
“To me, if a player were to choose not to go to the White House, whether they were choosing not to go to the current White House or a future White House, my response would be: ‘That’s a lost opportunity,’ ” Silver told The Undefeated last December. “Because that’s an opportunity that most citizens who have a political point of view would kill for — the opportunity to directly tell the president of the United States how they feel about an issue.
“Now, if the president were to say, ‘I have no interest in what members of the NBA think about an issue,’ that might surprise me and I might have a different response.”
Kerr, who joined San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich in criticizing Trump’s travel ban, would be in an interesting position if Golden State wins the championship, given that he has described Trump as a “blowhard” and “ill-suited.” Asked last month about what it takes to be a successful coach, he brought up Bob Knight and the president.
“My personal opinion is Bobby Knight’s way smarter than Donald Trump,” Kerr said. “Bobby Knight was brilliant in a lot of ways. So there was some real foundation in terms of knowing and coaching the game. But he was a bully, so … I think being a bully doesn’t work today, or at least it doesn’t work coaching. The modern coach has to be much more communicative, flexible, aware, conscientious, all those things.
“Frankly, I think it’s why Trump couldn’t be more ill-suited to be president, because he’s a blowhard. You don’t see some of the qualities you talk about, the resilience, the ability to communicate, the compassion. None of that. But in the old days, a lot of great coaches who maybe didn’t have those, there was still a fiber there, whatever it was. To be a great leader, there have to be some qualities in there.
“Has anyone ever thought that Donald Trump was a great leader?”
Should they win a title, athletes will continue to face a personal decision about visiting the White House. Although there was an unconfirmed report that the Warriors unanimously opted to stay away, that hasn’t been confirmed. Maybe they’ll choose to be the first to skip the White House and, instead, take up their Congressional representative, Nancy Pelosi, on her offer to swing by the U.S. Capitol.