“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire, the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sports can create hope, where there was once only despair. Sport is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers. It laughs in the face of all types of discrimination. Sport is the game of lovers.” — Nelson Mandela

Gone are the days when the thrill of winning a championship, medal or title in your respective sport was coupled with the excitement of the opportunity to accept a prestigious invitation from the current president. Now, it would seem, the thrill is no longer present. Teams, players and coaches have become socio-political figures that are now shunning the invitation in order to take a stand against the political platforms and ideas represented by the president of the United States. The extent to which athletes feel the need to extend their political stances still baffles this writer . . .  but that’s another story.

Historically, you can trace visits to the White House by sports teams as far back as the late 1800s. The first teams to ever make the trip were amateur clubs: the Washington Nationals (how appropriate) and the Brooklyn Atlantics. They were welcomed by President Andrew Johnson. Ever since, professional teams have made their presence known, at least in part, at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. Doing so has become a tradition of sorts.

This tradition is not without its own detractors. Star athletes from Larry Bird, James Harrison, Tom Brady, to even arguably the greatest basketball player of all time Michael Jordan, have declined invitations to the White House for various reasons, usually socially or politically motivated. Most recently, the entire Golden State Warrior team has debated attending the White House with President Donald Trump at the helm. While they debated the issue, Trump rescinded the invitation in one of his infamous tweets.

Clearly, the allure of attending the White House has lost its impact. This is especially prevalent as President Trump has further polarized the U.S. populace. So much so, that enigmatic figures such as LeBron James have gone on record to call him a “bum”. Others have insisted his racist, fascist and overwhelmingly divisive language and behaviour have made the 45th president one of the most unpopular leaders of the Western world in recent memory. It’s no surprise that a growing number of pro teams and players have declined invites to the White House in the last year and a half.

Former President Barack Obama, whose popularity was unparalleled, had continued the practice started by his predecessors of inviting championship teams to the Oval Office. National Collegiate Athletic Association teams were invited to be commemorated, and teams were also given the opportunity to do charitable work in Washington D.C. This leads me to believe that accepting an invitation to the White House to meet the current president was not only a chance of a lifetime, but moreover an opportunity to provide the D.C. and Maryland areas with acts of kindness and humanity.

… the visit should be viewed as something larger than the president himself.

Any visit to the White House by a sports team should be symbolic in nature, and not based on the favour of the sitting president. An opportunity to show the entire country and the rest of the world what incredible feats a given team has accomplished in a season, while being able to perform charitable works, should be the basis for a team’s acceptance. Though the rhetoric behind the current president isn’t necessarily something that will go down in the annals of history as positive political policy development and diplomacy, the visit should be viewed as something larger than the president himself. This is potentially why Head Coach Nick Saban recently demanded that his entire 2017-18 National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide team attend the Oval Office.

Sports have a way of bringing together all factions and walks of life in celebration of competition and the eventuality of winning. When we politicize sports, we tend to divide and alienate said factions, and the sport is no longer at the forefront; personal and socio-political views take precedence, and the goal of honoring a champion is obscured.

That said, the idiocy and belligerence of the current presidential regime makes it extremely difficult for anyone to warm up to the idea of visiting a place whose leader has evoked sentiments of racism, sexism and advanced the proliferation of fear. Declining the invitation is an inevitability that will most likely end once this presidential tenure is completed. Until then, supporting the tradition of White House visits may await such a time where athletes feel closely connected to the political platforms of the president or become indifferent to their policies and rhetoric. It is very unlikely today, at a time when star athletes are thrust into the spotlight and expected to align themselves with issues of social and political injustices. It’s hard out there for today’s athlete. Whatever happened to the age when they were expected to “just shut-up and dribble?”

Karim Grant is a former professional football player who has spent time in both the NFL and CFL. His love for hip-hop spans nearly three decades of beats, rhymes and fashion. His love for sports is equally expansive, as he’s made money playing one sport and has made enemies playing countless others. If he’s not on the field or the hard court coaching inner-city youth, he’s either reading or listening to your favourite artist’s favourite artist while exercising his competitive demons at your local gym. Grant has never been one to mince words on either subject of hip-hop or sports – or anything for that matter – and he’s not about to start anytime soon.