Filed away inside the vast Library of Congress are the glass negatives from a set of photographs dated Sept. 28, 1925, when President Calvin Coolidge posed alongside the Washington Senators to celebrate consecutive AL pennants, including a World Series win a year earlier. That collection of black-and-white images features a homogeneous cast of characters: each one smartly dressed in a suit, tie and expressionless face.
And while those men are widely remembered as the first sporting champions to pop by the White House, more than 60 years would pass with only fleeting visits—the Celtics in ’63; Indiana’s basketball team in ’76; the Steelers and Pirates together in ’80—before this became a recognizable trend. By the time Ronald Reagan began inviting champions to D.C. with relative consistency, in the ’80s, the look and feel of a typical team had changed drastically. The entire sports landscape had undergone seismic social and cultural revolutions, the roots of which have grown even stronger in the decades since, with topics like gender and racial equality bubbling to the forefront of the mainstream discussion.
Those movements and the people championing them have repeatedly collided over the past four years with President Donald Trump, whose presence in the Oval Office has hyperpoliticized and complexified an already-thorny tradition. Today’s athletes think long and hard about the ramifications of accepting or declining a White House invite.
Of course, in a pandemic world, it’s easy to wonder whether those routines will ever become routine again. As we approach the end of Trump’s first term in the White House—perhaps his only term, and perhaps the last one in the open-house White House era—Sports Illustrated spoke to athletes and team staffers who made the trip to D.C. and asked them to re-create a visit under No. 45. Those memories capture their host’s hospitality and character, his jabs at rivals and bogeymen, and an experience that visitors, regardless of politics, won’t soon forget. The place, it turns out, is bigger than the president.
ETHAN YOUNG (Visited in 2019 / Cal swimming / back, fly) I have some friends in Washington—I won’t give specific names, but a senator and a representative I know decently well—and I had mentioned in passing: “It would be funny if we could get Berkeley to the White House.” Then I got an email from the White House event planner, Grace Skogman, to my personal email.
KIMMY SAUL (2017 / Texas A&M equestrian / director of operations) I thought it was spam. It was like an Evite, basically. The President of the United States invites you to the White House. And I was like, “Um, sure?”
YOUNG Essentially it said, Hey, you guys have been invited to the White House. It’s our pleasure. And—oh, yeah—it’s two weeks from today. It was ridiculously tight.
SAUL We were meant to go to Oklahoma State and compete in a meet the day of the visit. I mean, I had a dinner reservation for that Friday night in Stillwater.
JON HAMMOND (2017 / West Virginia rifle / head coach) Going to the White House is a big deal, a lot of logistics, and obviously the President has bigger fish to fry and other stuff going on.
CAM WEINBERGER (2017 / Florida baseball / pitcher) We were practicing in the fall [after we won the College World Series], and Coach brought us together. No one really knew about the visit. It was surreal. To hear those words come out of your coach’s mouth is unbelievable.
AARON SAMARIN (2017 / Ohio State men’s volleyball / libero) We chartered a flight and had our own bus. We got to see the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial . . . the Smithsonian [National Museum] . . .
WEINBERGER The Washington Monument . . . the World War II Memorial . . .
KARLE PITTSINGER (2017 / Washington women’s rowing) It was more of a “cultural experience”—that’s how our coach phrased it.
TONY SIPP (2018 / Houston Astros / pitcher) We went straight off the plane to our charter bus to the White House. And from the White House right back to that same plane. We didn’t see anything outside the White House.
SAUL On Thursday we flew to D.C. Met the President on Friday. Flew home that night. And then a 12-hour turnaround again: Got on a bus Saturday, drove to Oklahoma, rode Sunday [against Oklahoma State], drove back that night. We had to stay in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma. And there was an earthquake at 2 a.m. We were wiped. But nobody was complaining. It was such a cool opportunity.
MALCOLM MITCHELL (2017 / New England Patriots / wide receiver) There are two reasons you go to the White House. You go for the cultural history it provides. And you go to see the person who is currently the president. If you go solely to interact with the president, well, that’s a personal decision. If you go for cultural reasons, then who’s sitting in that seat should not matter. You’re going to witness one of the greatest icons in America: the White House.
SIPP Being African American, a lot of eyes were on me, but I never thought twice about going. Trump hasn’t had the best reputation with African Americans or minorities, but for me it was about the opportunity to be at the White House, not who was president. Most people don’t get to experience that. It’s something I can tell my kids about forever.
JOEY LOGANO (2019 / Team Penske / NASCAR driver) Whether you agree with the president or not, I don’t think it should matter. If you don’t go, you’re disrespecting the warriors who built our amazing country. The only reason you’re a champion—in the NBA or the NFL or NASCAR or whatever—is because of the people who fought for our freedom. If you don’t go [to the White House] and pay respect to that, that’s really childish.
SAMARIN A couple teammates were like, Well, you know. . . . They had seen South Carolina’s women’s basketball team [decline an invite in 2017], and they thought that was a powerful statement. Then there were individuals like myself. I was like, “I don’t care who the president is. It’s the White House.”
ROB NINKOVICH (2017 / New England Patriots / linebacker) You don’t talk about that stuff among your teammates. I’m a huge history buff. The opportunity to go to the White House was hard to pass up—to really experience history like that.
HAMMOND Trump is obviously a polarizing figure, but we were quite excited to go just because he’s a character. Regardless of political views and how he’ll be described as a leader, to a lot of us he’s also a TV celebrity.
MORGAN PHILLIPS (2017 / West Virginia rifle / smallbore) We were all excited because we were like, We have no idea what’s going to come out of his mouth. He could say anything.
TANA MCKAY (Texas A&M equestrian / head coach) I never even thought about [my athletes potentially] not wanting to go. That never entered my mind. Everybody was ready to jump at it.
In 2019, after accepting an invitation to the White House’s semiannual celebration of non-revenue-sport champions, Columbia’s fencing team staged a silent protest, wearing white lapel pins during the visit to signify gender and racial equality. The fencers also drafted a letter they intended to hand to Trump—but news of their plan went public shortly before the visit and White House staff intercepted the correspondence, which they promised to deliver to the President.
NOLEN SCRUGGS (2019 / Columbia fencing) The White House visit was the first time we had to be political.
ELISE GOUT (2019 / Columbia fencing) For some of us, the invitation and the administration itself were inherently intertwined. Our values and the invitation were inherently intertwined.
QUINN CRUM (2019 / Columbia fencing) I wanted to make my voice heard, but declining [the invite] was not going to make any impact. We don’t have the same reach as the New York Knicks or the U.S. women’s soccer team. Nothing would have come of [our staying home]. That was the main thing that drove me to attend. Being Black, a woman and Native American, so many things that this administration has done directly attack me, directly affect me. I needed to make my voice heard.
SCRUGGS We thought a letter would be the best medium. Even if we couldn’t physically pass it to the President, we could blast it out—through the internet, through the press [where the letter was ultimately shared]—so people across the world could see we had a message for him.
GOUT The letter was signed by a number of fencing members who were comfortable putting their names to the language. Pairing that with the pins gave people different levels of comfort and access into showing what they stood up for.
SAUL I had turned in a list of who was going to be there, with Social Security numbers. They’d gone through background checks and all that good stuff.
NINKOVICH They have these boxes with dogs in them, smelling you.
SIPP The windows were meant to [withstand] a rocket launcher or whatever. Then you have all these body screens that you’re not even aware of. I felt safe, to say the least.
SAUL Most teams bring the president a jersey. We brought him a pair of A&M cowboy boots—but to bring a box into the White House is a little more intense than bringing it somewhere else. We had to get there super early so they could screen it, and who knows what else they did to it.
LOGANO My idea was: I’ll come driving up in a race car. I mean, how American can you get? But apparently the Secret Service didn’t think that was the coolest idea. That got shot down pretty quick. (Logano did end up getting to park his car on the South Lawn.)
WEINBERGER I remember walking down the hallway after security, and my jaw dropped. Wow, this is so cool! That feeling when you walk down this big hallway, with huge arches, into the Rose Garden—it was crazy.
NINKOVICH The grounds are kept so perfect. Everything about the flowers, the trees, the grass. . . . I wish I could keep my house that nice.
LOGANO They had a piano in this big ballroom area, and we made a request. I think we might have been the only people that had “Free Bird” playing in the White House.
MITCHELL We went through the Red Room, the Yellow Room, the Green Room—all those colored rooms.
YOUNG Being in the room where FDR gave his fireside chats, strolling the halls where so many historic moments have happened. . . . There were individuals on our team taking pictures, sending it to their parents, like, “Hey, here’s the painting of George Washington that was saved from the Fire of 1812.”
NINKOVICH The history is pretty awesome. You sit down in a chair and you’re like, I wonder who sat in this? [During one visit] they had a little buffet out on a table, and I stuffed a napkin in my pocket because it had the White House seal on it. It was really cool.
YOUNG He walks in, and everyone goes silent. It’s like, Oh, wow; this is actually happening. You don’t think of this when you sign on to a college, right?
GOUT I remember so distinctly standing up in the bleachers and then the moment the President walks in. It kind of brings you back into yourself for a moment, and you recognize the power and the authority behind the institution. I think I was sort of paralyzed by that.
WEINBERGER When he walked in the room, I remember I got chills.
MITCHELL Regardless of the individual, the position they hold and what they represent, that aura is gigantic.
SCRUGGS Every single interaction he has could be written in a book somewhere. Every little interaction matters so much, and I think that’s what made me anxious—not wanting to do something silly that will be remembered forever in history books.
SIPP The President was in front of me, literally at arm’s reach, and I’m thinking: Don’t make any crazy movements.
LOGANO I’m standing right next to him, so I was able to see his speech [on the paper in front of him]. He’d go word for word, then go off on something else and then come back. And he was so good at it.
SIPP Seeing how big the font was that he had to read, I remember thinking: Gosh, if you miss a word with these big letters, something is really wrong with you.
True to his reputation, Trump has shared bits and pieces of dialogue with visitors that have reflected his impulsiveness and unpredictability.
CRUM When he walked in, he came over and spoke to us in the same way that he speaks in any press conference. Like, “So, who’s the best fencer on the team?” And we’re all just kind of like, “Uh, we’re one team. We don’t really do that.” And he’s like, “Oh, great, great, great.”
GOUT He recognized very quickly that we were maybe not his target audience. He made some comment about, “Oh, well, you’ll see the Oval Office. It’s really nice. Really great.” And no one from our side was saying anything. For some people it was just the paralysis of, Holy s—, this is the President. For a lot of us it was, Holy s—, this is the President—and I’m protesting it.
CRUM I didn’t even know how to feel about the meeting, but it definitely wasn’t a positive thought. I’m sure you can tell that [I was conflicted]. In the group photo, my face is blank. So many people have been like, “You look like an ax murderer in that photo.”
GOUT While of course we would have liked to hand him our letter directly, the fact that it didn’t reach him wasn’t in any way disheartening to us because of all the larger conversations that then started.
CRUM I heard from a lot of angry Trump supporters. That’s kind of the impact that we wanted. If Trump supporters are angry enough to reach out to some college students, then I think our movement had the reach we wanted.
GOUT I was getting DMs on Instagram—profanities and some death threats and things that were so radical. You kind of have to laugh at it a little bit and understand that your message is getting across.
SCRUGGS One of the inspirations for our letter was Craig Hodges; he won an NBA championship [with the Bulls] while George H.W. Bush was president. (Hodges wore a dashiki to the White House and handed Bush a letter protesting the administration’s disinterest in helping minority communities.) I’m excited to see—10, 20 years from now—kids who get a similar invitation, from some sort of higher-up government body, and how they decide to make some good trouble, whether they feel inspired by us.
MCKAY Say what you want about Trump, but he was very personable. He asked questions of all the teams.
YOUNG He seemed very knowledgeable regarding swimming. Dave Durden, our head coach, introduced himself: “Hey, I’m the men’s Team USA coach for next summer’s Olympic games in Tokyo.” The President was like: “Oh, let me think. Some of your fiercest competition is Australia. The Japanese. The British are doing very well.” We were all just looking at one another. Whether he was told that information 30 seconds prior to our meeting or not, he was charming.
SAMARIN We handed him an Ohio State volleyball as a gift, and then he bumped it to us. One of the guys on the team caught it. So we ended up not being able to give him the volleyball. We were like, “Wait, no, you’re supposed to keep that!”
SIPP He mentioned that he and [Astros pitcher] Justin Verlander shot a couple rounds of golf together. It was funny; I think he thought Verlander was a position player, because he mentioned his [baseball swing]. We were like, “Well . . . ” Verlander doesn’t swing, but it’s O.K., he’s the president.
HAMMOND There was a little sign for each team; there was one for West Virginia rifle. He walked straight in and was like, “Oh, rifle team. Pew pew!” and did like a shooting action from the hip. That made us giggle.
PHILLIPS One teammate brought his résumé, printed out, and he asked the President, “Can I give it to you?” And Trump said, “Absolutely, give me your résumé.” He starts looking at it and he goes, “Wow. Smart kid. 3.9 GPA. Finance and accounting. He’s not just a pretty face.”
PITTSINGER My coach, she was like, “How does it feel to have a group of strong, young, empowered women here?” And he was like, “I’ve been surrounded by empowered women my whole life. Too bad Hillary didn’t make it into the office. Maybe next time.” I was standing right behind him, like, O.K. Let’s talk about this.
MCKAY He made a comment like, “Come on, ladies, go in the Oval Office. Because one of these days there’s going to be a woman in the office. It didn’t work out for Hillary, but one of these days there will be.”
WEINBERGER He made a joke about Colin Kaepernick. I was like, Whoa. It was along the lines of, “Have you seen the ratings in the NFL? [Kaepernick] is why
SIPP He made an Obama reference. “Oh, I bet Obama didn’t offer to take pictures and shake hands with people in the Oval Office.”
LOGANO In his office there’s a hallway that goes to another conference room. Well, in that hallway there’s a closet, and apparently that’s where the whole thing went down with Bill Clinton [and Monica Lewinsky]. So he opens the door and he tells us, “This is where it all happened.” And he goes, “I don’t go in there, though. That’s bad mojo. That’s just a storage closet now.”
SAUL We were in the Rose Garden, right outside the Oval Office. He just casually was like, “Would you girls like to go in?”
MCKAY And everybody is like, “Well, sure!” His security detail was like, “No.” I don’t think that was part of the itinerary. And he was like, “Yeah! Yes, yes; let them in. Let them in, that’s fine.” They were not prepared to have visitors in the Oval Office but, you know, they did what the boss man said.
SAUL We walk into the Oval Office, and the Secret Service asks somebody, “Who told you you could be in here?” And somebody points to the President.
SAMARIN We got to stand behind his desk and we took a picture.
SAUL Our track coach has been to the White House under three presidents, and he told us that this was the most open the White House has ever been. Once we got there, it was basically just like, Have a look around!
MITCHELL There were areas where you could see the staff members’ tensions build when [Trump] said we were allowed to go in. It was clear there were places that are normally restricted, but that we had access to. Lincoln’s bedroom is normally off limits, but for some reason we got the O.K. They were telling us we couldn’t go—and he said, “Yeah, you can go.”
LOGANO He gave us a tour through the whole thing. When we’re walking out, he goes, “Man, how about this? Just a few years ago, I thought maybe I could be president, and now look at us.” It almost seemed like it was a dream come true for him as much as it was for us.
LOGANO I look at the pictures of that day and the first word that comes to my mind is: badass. You’ve got one of the most iconic buildings in the world, with your race car sitting in front of it. You don’t just drive a car up and take a picture in front of the White House. Nobody can do that. That’s a real special thing.
WEINBERGER I did feel like I was on cloud nine. It was unbelievable.
SAUL A big part of being in equestrian is explaining the sport, telling people what we do. So, to be at the White House and to be recognized as athletes and champions—it was great for the girls. I was really happy and proud for them.
SIPP For that day, for whatever couple hours they set aside for us, we were the No. 1 thing on [the President’s] agenda, and it was pretty cool. To see that the game I play gives me the opportunity to meet the President, that’s one of the main reasons I never even thought about opting out of going to the White House.
NINKOVICH On the way back, we got stuck at the airport. We’re like, “Let’s go find a bar.” We found one that had just opened, a Mexican restaurant. And every single person—coaches, training staff—we all went, and it was one of the best memories. That was pretty much the last time we were together as a team. (Ninkovich retired that offseason.)
PITTSINGER I have this picture of me standing right behind Donald Trump—our team is laughing and I’m smiling. That image doesn’t necessarily articulate my true thoughts. Even though I don’t agree with his leadership, the fact that we were able to walk through the White House, that we were able to come together as a team and visit together, I think it’s really sad that some [athletes] are turning down the visit.
MITCHELL I’ve been reading about the White House my entire life. It’s iconic. There are stories about people that look like me—Black people—helping build that house. So getting the opportunity to see it was almost as surreal as meeting your childhood hero.