GLENDALE, Ariz. — On Monday night at the conclusion of the Final Four, the first major collegiate men’s champion will be crowned since the inauguration of President Donald Trump. Tradition dictates that the winner will get invited to the White House for a celebration, photo opportunity and a frozen moment that’s become part of the lore of major college sports.
In the more than two months since his inauguration, Trump has proved a divisive presence in the sports world. Steph Curry, Lebron James and Texas coach Shaka Smart are among the prominent voices in the basketball world who’ve spoken out against Trump since the election.
With the 2017 men’s basketball championship coming with an invitation to Washington D.C., reactions at the Final Four were guarded and mixed about the potential of visiting the Trump White House. North Carolina senior forward Isaiah Hicks cracked a huge smile and declined to comment. South Carolina guard Tommy Corchiani said he’d go to the White House if the Gamecocks won and looked away awkwardly, saying he “didn’t want to get too deep into that.” Gonzaga guard Jordan Matthews declined comment, pointing the focus to the court.
The contrasting response of South Carolina freshman Sedee Kieta, who hails from Philadelphia, gave insight into the conundrum that will face the winning team on Monday. How do you balance any political leanings with the honor of being invited to one of America’s most celebrated addresses? “I’d be honored to go to the White House,” Kieta said. “Right now, I don’t know if I’d go. But it would be an honor to be invited. Our president, some of the stuff he says I don’t agree with. But he’s the president of the United States. It would be an honor to meet him.”
Among the Final Four coaches, the one who has been most vocally critical of Trump is North Carolina coach Roy Williams. At the ACC tournament in Brooklyn, Williams slipped a direct shot at Trump that quickly made national headlines when he said: “Our president tweets out more bulls--- than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
When asked about the potential White House visit on Thursday, Williams offered an artful dodge, complete with three uses of “dadgum,” his folksy vocabulary crutch. Williams deflected the question by saying he’s so superstitious that he crosses himself when he takes a putt: “I’m not even Catholic.” He adds: “But no, no, there's nobody in the world that can make me think of anything like that,” he said of the White House. “But after the game, if we're still standing here, you can ask me and I'll give you an honest answer. I've tried to make sure I never jinx my dadgum self.”
The coach who addressed the question most directly was South Carolina’s Frank Martin. He focused on the honor of being invited.
“We live in the United States of America,” said Martin, the son of Cuban political exiles. “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.”
The tradition of winning college basketball teams going to the White House reportedly dates back to the Indiana Hoosiers in 1976. A picture from the visit includes a smiling and spry young Bob Knight, fresh off an undefeated season, in a group picture with his team and President Gerald Ford. The assembled Hoosiers are smiling, clad in 1970s chic bow ties and plaid jackets. The tradition has become a group-and-grin that’s part of the American sports landscape, as professional championship teams annually take championship visits as well. (Clemson won the college football national title in January, a few weeks before Trump’s inauguration. Logistics are still being figured out to arrange that visit, according to a school official).
In an interview with The New York Times in February, 11-time NCAA champion Geno Auriemma of Connecticut acknowledged the discomfort of a visit to the Trump White House. Auriemma had visited the White House so frequently during Barack Obama’s presidency (Auriemma’s Huskies won championships in six of the eight years Obama was president) that the former president joked with him that he had his own room. “The fact that in all the 11 championships I’ve never been asked this question says something about where we are,” Auriemma told The Times. “Forget the answer. The fact that I’ve never been asked means there’s something going on that isn’t normal.”
The New England Patriots have taken a significant stand against Trump, with at least six players announcing for various reasons they won’t go to the White House, ranging from political to family. Some were blunt, as safety Devin McCourty said he didn’t “feel accepted” in the White House and LeGarrette Blount saying he doesn’t “feel welcome.” That creates an awkward contrast to owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and star quarterback Tom Brady, who are close enough to Trump that the president felt comfortable making their friendship public during his campaign.
The North Carolina players can relate to a divided locker room. Junior forward Aaron Rohlman said that only about three of the 15 Tar Heels players voted for Trump, which caused some tension. “The rest of the team was upset about it for about two hours,” he said of the election. “We realized one person voting for a different person isn’t going to get us anywhere as a team.”
Ultimately, Rohlman said he thinks the players would think more of the honor of the invitation than the politics of the president. “I think maybe some people wouldn’t want to go,” he said. “But I still think that they would go.”
None of the coaches, athletic directors or presidents of the universities involved in the Final Four had strong enough political beliefs that they made significant campaign contributions during the last election cycle. According to data provided to Sports Illustrated by Opensecrets.org, the most significant donation of any prominent official involved in the Final Four schools came from Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh, who made three donations to Obama’s 2008 campaign totaling $1,250.
The topic still made some university officials uncomfortable. Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens said, “We’re only focused on Saturday. This is our first time here. We’re trying to get 4,000 fans here and checked into the hotel.”
Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said he’d never pondered the question until a reporter asked him about it on Thursday. “We as a public have maybe made a bigger deal about that than in the past because of President Trump,” he said. “There’s been plenty of teams that go to the White House where 100% of them aren’t there. It may be a personal position or it might be their mom’s birthday.”
Tradition dictates that an invitation will follow the winning team on Monday night. From there, the decisions of the players, coaches and administrators will be tracked closely.