Why Don’t White Athletes Understand What’s Wrong With Trump?

The Red Sox players who visit the White House owe their black and brown teammates an explanation.

The Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora
The Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora is among the team members declining an invitation to Trump's White House. (Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today Sports via Reuters)

So far, the conversation about the upcoming Boston Red Sox visit to Donald Trump’s White House has centered around the people of color who are skipping the event. The manager Alex Cora, a critic of the Trump administration’s inexcusable treatment of Puerto Rico amid the devastation of Hurricane Maria in 2017, cited his home island’s continuing troubles as his reason for opting out.

“Unfortunately, we are still struggling, still fighting,” Cora said in a statement. “Some people still lack basic necessities, others remain without electricity and many homes and schools are in pretty bad shape almost a year and a half after Hurricane Maria struck. I’ve used my voice on many occasions so that Puerto Ricans are not forgotten, and my absence is no different. As such, at this moment, I don’t feel comfortable celebrating in the White House.”

The majority of the Hispanic and African American players on the Red Sox—including the pitcher David Price and the 2018 American League MVP, Mookie Betts—have also declined to attend. Not all have explained their reasons, but the Mexican-born relief pitcher Hector Velázquez has been honest. “I made the choice not to go because, as we know, the president has said a lot of stuff about Mexico,” he told MassLive. “And I have a lot of people in Mexico that are fans of me, that follow me. And I’m from there. So I would rather not offend anyone over there.”

Black and Hispanic players and coaches are expected to justify their reasons for not going to Trump’s White House. But the real question is: Why have so many of the white players on the Red Sox chosen not to support their black and brown teammates?

As my colleague Yoni Appelbaum wrote in June, the history of sports teams visiting the White House began in 1865, when Union soldiers played baseball on the White House grounds to pay homage to a game they loved and to send a unifying message to a country torn apart by the Civil War.

But President Andrew Johnson wasn’t really on board with a message of togetherness. Around that time, The Cincinnati Enquirer quoted Johnson as telling the governor of Missouri, “This is a country for white men, and by God, so long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

That divisive proclamation 154 years ago turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Johnson wanted a government where certain people felt excluded. Under Trump, Johnson’s wish came true.

Trump hasn’t made his views as overt as Johnson did, but the current president’s actions, policies, and treatment of marginalized citizens reveal a lot about his underlying attitudes. As such, Trump turned the tradition of championship teams visiting the White House into an uncomfortable experience for athletes of color—who are often asked to cast aside their identity for the comfort of their white teammates, owners, coaches, and fans.

Plenty of commentators have argued that these White House visits should be apolitical and devoid of drama. But under Trump’s administration, that simply isn’t possible.

Recently, Trump hosted the NCAA champion Baylor women’s-basketball team at the White House, making the Bears the first women’s championship team Trump has held a private ceremony for since he became president. That the Baylor coach, Kim Mulkey, had publicly campaigned for an invitation to the White House helped bring about the visit. Trump has shown that he can be petulant about extending invites to championship teams if his overture won’t be warmly received. After the Golden State Warriors won the NBA championship in 2017, Trump rescinded his invitation to them on Twitter because several players had been critical of the president, and many of them made it known that they had no interest in attending a White House reception.

When photos of Baylor’s visit circulated on social media, the internet had its fun making note of how some of the players didn’t look thrilled to be there. As of now, no one outside the team knows if Mulkey ever considered how some of her players might feel about being in the presence of someone who has insulted not just people of color, but also women—and women athletes in particular.

When South Carolina won the NCAA women’s-basketball championship in 2017, the Gamecocks didn’t receive an invitation to visit Trump for months. The lateness “speaks volumes,” the coach Dawn Staley says. When the invite finally came, the team declined. Did Trump’s snub register with Mulkey, the Baylor coach? Did Mulkey consider the things that Stephen Moore, Trump’s now-withdrawn pick for the Federal Reserve Board, wrote mocking women’s participation in sports?

Through Baylor’s sports-information department, Mulkey declined to comment about the team’s trip to the White House. However, she told the Associated Press last month that going to the White House is “not a political issue for me.”

But what if it’s a personal issue for her players? If Mulkey didn’t at least have an honest dialogue with her team about the trip to the White House, then she is guilty of exhibiting privilege and an alarming lack of awareness.

Not every red-state coach expects players to grimace their way through an appearance with Trump. To his credit, the Clemson football coach, Dabo Swinney, reportedly never pressured any players on his team to visit the White House in January after the Tigers beat Alabama for their second national title in the past three years. Forty-five members of the team chose not to go.

Plenty of athletes opted not to go to the White House when Barack Obama was president, but that felt different. Those choices appeared to be rooted in athletes’ convictions about certain topics—rather than in any deeper judgments about the character of the sitting president. In 2012, the Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas backed out of the White House reception because, as he argued in a statement at the time, the “federal government has grown out of control, threatening the rights, liberties, and property of the people.” In 2013, the Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk, a devout Catholic, chose not to go to the White House because of a speech Obama had made at Planned Parenthood.

Context matters. And the truth is that Trump’s hateful rhetoric and policies aren’t so easily forgotten. Forcing people—including championship athletes—to disregard how hurtful his actions can be is disrespectful to those he has hurt.

Alex Cora can’t laugh and shake hands with the president knowing that 3,000 people in Puerto Rico—a U.S. territory—perished as a result of Hurricane Maria. And it’s not just that the government’s response to the devastation was inadequate. Trump also lied about the island’s death toll, and in a tweet the president called Puerto Rico’s leaders “grossly incompetent” and said they only want to “take from USA,” which implied that Puerto Rico wasn’t part of his country. In the same vein, a senior administration official told The Washington Post that Trump “doesn’t want another single dollar going to the island.” That’s not policy, that’s pettiness—and it shows contempt and condescension toward the people of Puerto Rico.

Trump’s bigoted and obtuse rhetoric about immigrants, “Mexican countries,” and their citizens is also well known, so expecting Hector Velázquez to smile politely in a team photo with Trump in the Oval Office is an indignity he shouldn’t have to suffer.

In team sports, the concept of putting team before self is preached ad nauseam. Solidarity is supposed to be paramount, but clearly in this situation that solidarity doesn’t run both ways. If you’re one of the athletes of color on a team, how can you not wonder how your white teammates feel about people like you? That thought appeared to cross David Price’s mind Monday.

Later, when pressed on the matter by The Boston Globe, Price said he was only amplifying “an insensitive tweet that needs to be seen by more people.” But, in fact, that “insensitive” message only pointed out an obvious pattern.

So instead of focusing on why Cora and other Red Sox figures won’t be at the White House, ask their teammates why they’re comfortable being with a president who marginalizes and harms the communities to which their fellow players belong.