On Monday afternoon in Washington, D.C., history took place. For the first time in his 27 months in office, President Donald Trump held a private ceremony for a championship-winning women’s sports team at the White House.
The guests of honor? The Baylor Lady Bears, who won the 2019 NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship earlier this month, with a 81-76 victory over Notre Dame.
Trump, as he’s wont to do, presided over a litany of cringeworthy moments in what should have been a pretty straightforward affair.
First, in the continuation of a tradition that he started during the government shutdown with the Clemson football team, he served Baylor a smorgasbord of Chick-fil-A sandwiches, french fries, Big Macs, and pizza. “The lunch was good? You can’t do better than that,” he remarked to the players when they were crowded into the Oval Office for the photo op.
Then, when head coach Kim Mulkey presented him with the customary Baylor jersey with “Trump” on the back, Trump uttered the phrase: “I love the short sleeves, such beautiful arms. Great definition.”
Finally, when he was presented with a Baylor national championship hat, Trump joked about his hair being real: “Can I put it on? It will mess up my hair, but that’s okay. It is mine.”
But the most questionable moment didn’t come from Trump himself. Instead, it came from Baylor head coach Kim Mulkey, who began her comments to the president by saying, “First of all, thank you for inviting us.”
That might seem like a mundane greeting, but given the circumstances, it’s anything but.
Again, Trump has never held a private ceremony for a women’s sports team — though a few women’s teams did attend a mass celebration at the White House for numerous men’s and women’s collegiate teams in nonrevenue sports, and some female Olympians attended at an event last year celebrating Team USA athletes that competed in Pyeongchang.
These used-to-be-a-mere-formality ceremonies to honor championship athletes tend to provoke petty, narcisstic reactions from Trump. Last year, Trump uninvited the Super Bowl Champion Philadelphia Eagles the day before their ceremony, after it was reported that most players weren’t going to be in attendance. Two years ago, he infamously withdrew his invitation to the NBA champion Golden State Warriors because their star point guard, Steph Curry, said publicly that he wasn’t likely to accept the invitation.
Going to the White House is considered a great honor for a championship team.Stephen Curry is hesitating,therefore invitation is withdrawn!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 23, 2017
When it comes to women’s sports teams, there hasn’t been as much public drama — mainly because Trump’s fear of rejection rules out the possibility.
In 2017, the White House didn’t extend an invitation to the South Carolina Gamecocks until September — five months after their victory. Even then, they were only invited as part of an event honoring multiple championship teams. Head coach Dawn Staley declined the invitation, in part, she implied, because she felt disrespected by the delay. The past two WNBA champions, the Minnesota Lynx in 2017 and the Seattle Storm in 2018, were not even given the courtesy of an invitation, nor was the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, which won the NCAA title in 2018.
The only reason the Lady Bears got an invite is because Mulkey telegraphed her eagerness to accept the invite soon after the national championship win.
“I’ve been every time for every president,” Mulkey told the Associated Press a few weeks ago. “It’s an honor to go to the White House. I want everyone to say they went to the White House. Not many people can say that.”
Mulkey’s entire team accompanied her and the Baylor staff. And, while there’s no doubt they got something out of the experience — the day prior, the team visited the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as Washington, D.C.’s much-loved monuments — it was clear that Mulkey’s decision put many of her players in an uncomfortable position.
Kalani Brown, who was drafted seventh overall in the WNBA draft earlier this month by the Los Angeles Sparks, posted a photo on Instagram tagged “Obama’s White House.” She also posted videos in which she laughed at the fast food spread. “Okay, Donnie,” she said. “Cool.”
Mulkey attempted to paint her willingness to go to the White House as an apolitical decision. But, of course, it’s anything but.
The policies and rhetoric coming out of Trump’s White House are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Basketball — and particularly women’s basketball — is a sport dominated by black women, with a prominent queer community. These are some of the groups most marginalized by the Trump administration. By choosing to accept Trump’s invitation, Mulkey was sending a clear message that in the face of that sort of disrespect, the proper thing to do is to bite one’s tongue, shake hands, and smile for a photo op.
She was also signaling that even though president has disrespected so many women’s basketball champions in the past, as long as he invited Baylor, all is forgiven.
In context, this isn’t necessarily surprising. Mulkey has previously dismissed concerns about sexual assault at Baylor, encouraged former Baylor star Brittney Griner to be quiet about her sexuality, and heavily promoted a “lady-like” way of dressing and acting. And Baylor is a particularly conservative Christian school in the heart of Texas, where Mulkey — and, by extension, her players — are likely strongly encouraged for upholding stereotypically conservative values. Skipping out on a White House visit certainly wouldn’t have gone over well in Waco.
But that doesn’t mean Mulkey’s hand was forced. She’s a three-time national champion who has built up a lot of clout over the years, thanks to her dedication to Baylor and her on-court success. If she wanted to take her students on a trip to Washington, D.C. to teach them about politics, she could have done that without shaking Trump’s hand. She could have even organized a day of service, like the Minnesota Lynx did back in 2018.
“I think patriotism is subjective,” Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said at the time. “Service is a form of patriotism. This is what patriotism looks like.”
But Mulkey and the Lady Bears didn’t use this championship as an opportunity to take a stand. Instead, they ate burgers, and summoned a smile.