LSU champions’ visit to the White House provides an opportunity for reflection
LSU’s national champion women’s basketball team will be at the White House on Friday.
They’ll be joined by Connecticut’s national championship men’s basketball team.
It’s a pair of well deserved honors for the Tigers’ first women’s NCAA title team and the Huskies’ fifth since 1999.
But this almost didn’t happen as is the norm.
At least in LSU’s case.
The day after the Tigers defeated Iowa 102-85 in Dallas to win an improbable championship, First Lady Jill Biden, who attended the title game, was so impressed by the performance of both finalists that she innocently suggested the runner-up Hawkeyes join the Tigers at the White House for the obligatory ceremony.
The game drew a record TV audience and Mrs. Biden cited the growth of women’s sports since the implementation of Title IX more than 50 years ago in focusing on the big picture.
It seemed a sincere gesture meant to demonstrate an appreciation for two outstanding teams, led by two elite players in LSU’s Angel Reese and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark, and also demonstrate an appreciation for the continued evolution of women’s basketball into one of the top sports in American culture.
But it also was understandably seen by some, especially those who tend to wear purple and gold, as diminishing the champions’ honor by asking them to share the stage with the runners-up.
Reese, who seems destined for a very successful professional basketball career when she’s done with the Tigers and probably not cut out to be a politician, was characteristically honest and direct with her response.
She tweeted a link to a story on Mrs. Biden’s comments with the words “A JOKE” and three rolling-on-the-floor-laughing emojis.
The controversy occurred in the wake of Reese’s viral “You can’t see me” gesture toward Clark at the end of LSU’s victory – as well as pointing to her finger that would soon be fitted for a championship ring.
Reese either was being unsportsmanlike or giving Clark a deserved dose of her own medicine after Clark had made a “You can’t see me” gesture toward no one in particular during an Elite Eight victory against Louisville.
Which it was largely depended on whether one was satisfied or dissatisfied with the outcome of the game.
Tigers coach Kim Mulkey, who’s an old hand at White House visits thanks to her three titles as head coach at Baylor and an Olympic gold medal winner as a player at Louisiana Tech, quickly said she would attend under any circumstances.
To the credit of Clark and her coach, Lisa Bluder, they both acknowledged that such invitations traditionally are limited to the champion and said they wouldn’t horn in on LSU’s recognition.
The White House, as White Houses tend to do, quickly “clarified” the First Lady’s comments and sort of uninvited the Hawkeyes without explicitly doing so.
So all’s well that ends well – unless you see this as an opportunity.
American society has become so politicized and so polarized that virtually any national story can devolve into a left-vs.-right debate, with millions on both sides feeling compelled to line up with their far end of the political spectrum as soon as a story can be shoe-horned through an us-vs.-them prism.
Sports wise, many on one end see no value in the accomplishments of any individual or team that finishes any lower than first. Many on the other end believe mere participation is worthy of special acknowledgement.
In this case the question must be asked whether such invitations serve any useful purpose.
LSU got a rousing victory parade in Baton Rouge, and nothing that happens at the White House on Friday is going to match that celebration.
Politicians always have and always will want to associate themselves with the most popular and successful among their perceived constituents.
But it’s not uncommon these days for a coach or a player to pass on an opportunity to visit the White House with their fellow champions because of their disdain for the particular President issuing the invitation.
That’s fair – and very American – to protest in a peaceful and dignified manner.
But in this environment these ceremonies by rote are as much as invitation to political nonsense tainting the champions’ accomplishments as they are an invitation to champions worthy of special acknowledgement.
Nowadays this ritual would be more meaningful if limited to individuals and teams representing the United States as a whole – Olympic individuals and teams, World Cup teams, etc.
One of the very few remaining areas in which most Americans are capable of unifying is when Team USA – or an individual member of it – competes against a non-American team or individual in a sporting event.
It seems best that any American President limit their sports invitations to that.
In the unlikely event that an examination of the value of such an event were to make Friday’s ceremony the last of its kind, it wouldn’t be foreign to LSU.
Years ago the NCAA used to have a consolation game preceding it’s NCAA men’s basketball championship game. The losers of Saturday’s Final Four semifinals would meet for third place prior to the Monday night championship game.
That tradition ended after Virginia defeated LSU 78-74 in the 1981 consolation game in Philadelphia.
That game – and the ensuing championship game between Indiana and North Carolina – was played just hours after President Reagan was shot in Washington. The games were delayed and the decision to play them wasn’t made until it was apparent that the President would survive.
Shortly thereafter the NCAA discontinued the consolation game, though there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on a single cause of the discontinuation.
Perhaps it was the arrival of the first NCAA women’s tournament a year later, which would challenge the NCAA staff in a manner that would make a men’s consolation game expendable.
Perhaps it was a lack of interest among ticket buyers and television viewers.
Perhaps it was the introspection necessitated by the President’s health crisis that produced a revelation that the third-place game was an idea that had outlived its relevance.
Most likely it was some combination of those factors.
In any event, now seems like a good time to take a step back and evaluate whether these obligatory White House invitations – like the one that is bringing LSU to Washington – have outlived their relevance.
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Les East is a nationally renowned freelance journalist. The New Orleans area native’s blog on SportsNOLA.com was named “Best Sports Blog” in 2016 by the Press Club of New Orleans. For 2013 he was named top sports columnist in the United States by the Society of Professional Journalists. He has since become a valued contributor for CCS. The Jesuit High…