The Cleveland Cavaliers lost their first game of the season Tuesday, the same night Donald Trump won the White House. And while the majority of the talk in the Cavs locker room after the game was how the Hawks handed the defending NBA champs an L, the election was probably a close second.
Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins was there, casually chopping it up with one of the Cavs players when Donald Trump’s unexpected ascension to the most powerful position in the world happened. And that player brought up an interesting hypothetical.
The Cavs are going to the White House tomorrow. One of them speculated they may be the last NBA team to do that for a while.— Lee Jenkins (@SI_LeeJenkins) November 9, 2016
After a year in which kneeling for the national anthem became the most visible form of protest in sports, could champions refusing to visit the White House be 2017's cause du jour?
The tradition of championship teams touring the White House and being honored by the president dates back to Ronald Reagan. Subsequent Commanders-in-Chief have followed suit and President Obama, arguably the biggest sports fan the White House has seen in decades, has made a visit to the White House among the most coveted perks of being a world champ.
The Cavs will visit Obama Thursday.
But after running a campaign that ostracized minorities as a whole and disparaged the entire African-American community multiple times, most notably when he asked people what they had to lose by voting for him, could you fault NBA players—the overwhelming majority of which are, of course, black—for having serious reservations about shaking hands and posing for pictures with president Donald J. Trump?
“It’s really hard to envision—let’s say Trump took office today—the Cavs going there tomorrow,” says Jenkins. “But in a year it may feel different. At this moment, a team like the Cavs visiting the White House with Donald Trump there might feel a little incongruous.”
You look at the teams that could win it and a lot of those teams are led by large-voiced, pretty powerful, free-thinking men.
Jenkins wants to emphasize that the Cavs haven’t taken a definitive stand on the subject, nor has any other NBA team, as far as he knows. But the Cavaliers, who will gleefully get their opportunity to ham it up with Obama, could conceivably be the last NBA team to make the trek for at least four years. They’ll present Obama with a jersey. He’ll lightly roast LeBron James, J.R. Smith, and coach Tyron Lue. Everyone will laugh. A good time will be had by all. The prospects of that continuing don't look promising right now.
“I don’t want to overstate the drama,” says Jenkins. “What [the anonymous player] was saying was ‘I don’t really know what this is going to look like in a year.’ You look at the teams that could win it and a lot of those teams are led by large-voiced, pretty powerful, free-thinking men.”
Considering how fractured the campaign left America and how guys like LeBron James voiced their support for Hillary Clinton and Carmelo Anthony has advocated on behalf of the Black Lives Matter movement, assuming things don’t change the chances of them wanting to be seen with Trump are slimmer than a team coming back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals.
Whether teams in other sports would follow suit seems murkier. Would an NFL team decline an invite? The demographics are very different from the NBA and plenty of informal surveys taken by media outlets showed Trump carried the support of many players in the league. Jets owner Woody Johnson was a noted Trump backer. Would players refuse to attend while some of their teammates and executives made the trek? Would a World Series champion squirm at the thought of an audience with Trump considering Latinos accounted for nearly 30 percent of rosters as of opening day 2015?
“If it becomes an issue, and I don’t know if it will be, it’s more likely to be an NBA issue than other sports,” says Jenkins. “The NBA, as far as the racial makeup, how progressive the league is, how the league falls politically, I just think it more than likely would be an NBA team.”
We’ve already seen an athlete openly protest the president. Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas back in 2012 chose to sit at home while his team was feted at the White House, claiming he couldn’t bring himself to shake the president’s hand because of the direction Obama was steering the government. A year from now, after the Warriors hypothetically win it all, could Trump get trumped by Steph Curry? Would J.R., who posted a picture of his daughter during a recent visit to the White House to Instagram today, feel comfortable in the new president's company?
It's a huge hypothetical, of course. And hopefully things change a year from now. But in this political environment that has empowered athletes like never before, making a statement by opting out of a White House visit would speak volumes. And isn't all that far fetched.