The crowd gathered in the East Room of the White House seemed to be holding their breath as Angel Reese walked past her teammates to a mahogany table where two Louisiana State University basketball jerseys were folded.
Which jersey would Reese, star of the LSU women’s team, choose to deliver? Would she bring a jersey for President Biden, or would Reese opt for the jersey reserved for first lady Jill Biden, whom Reese had publicly feuded with for days after leading the Lady Tigers to their first-ever national championship?
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Reese lifted the white jersey and held it like a banner towards the room. “FLOTUS” is written on the back, with a big purple “46” embroidered with yellow stitching.
The applause gave way to a collective “awww” as Reese, even taller than her usual 6ft 3in in a pair of tippy heels, leaned over halfway to give 5ft Jill a hug 5 inches.
For a sports-loving first lady who had found herself embroiled in the rare political uproar, Reese’s gesture was a big help.
The first lady committed a technical foul last month when she suggested that the Iowa Hawkeyes, who LSU thoroughly slapped in the title game, could still have earned an invite to the White House nonetheless. “I know we’ll bring the champions to the White House, we always do,” she said in off-the-cuff remarks after the game. “So, we hope LSU comes. But, you know, I’m going to tell Joe that I think Iowa should come too, because they played such a good game.” Reese, who took the tournament’s most notable honors, pushed back against the first lady’s eagerness to reward both sides. “A JOKE,” Reese tweeted in response to Biden’s suggestion.
The Lady Tigers had been wary of Biden’s White House even before the first lady’s postgame gaffe. President Biden’s March Madness support hadn’t flattered the underdog team’s potential, leading LSU to decline Jill Biden’s offer to visit their locker room before the championship game, according to Reese. (“He didn’t even put us on his edge to get out of Baton Rouge,” she said.) There was also a sense that Iowa, a mostly white team, received more media coverage. favorable than LSU, a predominantly black team. team – particularly the criticism of Reese’s use of the same taunting gesture that one of his White Iowa opponents had used in a previous game. In this context, the first lady’s spontaneous idea of celebrating both teams has exacerbated an undercurrent of disrespect. “If we were to lose,” Reese later said in a podcast, “we wouldn’t be invited to the White House.”
The White House rushed to the defense. A spokesperson for the first lady said Biden’s comments were “intended to applaud the historic game” and recognize “how far women have come in sports since Title IX was passed.” On Friday of that week, President Biden took the unusual step of calling Reese individually to congratulate her on her victory. Reese finally agreed to attend the ceremony – but not before digging deeper. “We’ll go to the Obamas,” she said on the podcast. “I’m going to see Michelle. I’m going to see Barack.”
Awkward! But not without precedent. Lately, the Obamas have been a haven for sports champions unimpressed by the latest occupants of the White House. Receptions for American sports champions have become particularly challenging occasions during Donald Trump’s presidency: few teams have accepted Trump’s invitations to celebrate with him. Some never received invitations, while others had theirs withdrawn. (The 2017 Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, had their event memorably replaced with a “Celebration of America” party on the White House lawn after some players spoke out against the president’s criticism against players who knelt during the national anthem.) The Golden State Warriors, two-time NBA champions under Trump’s presidency, spurned opportunities to celebrate at the White House and met Obama at the place.
The 44th president had spent most of his high school career as a bench warmer, but nonetheless played a pickup game with the NBA’s biggest stars for his 50th birthday, including Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Chris Paul . (Not to say that some athletes didn’t skip it either: Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk refused to join his team in celebrating their 2013 Super Bowl victory in protest of the Obama’s stance on abortion rights, while Boston Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas, a staunch Tea Party conservative, turned down his team’s visit for the Stanley Cup in 2012.)
Championship celebrations haven’t lost their political patina under Biden, but that’s because player politics has aligned more with his own. When the Milwaukee Bucks came to the White House to celebrate their 2021 NBA championship win, for example, Biden thanked them for inspiring the league’s shutdown to protest the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Golden State Warriors hosted a roundtable on gun violence, a favorite issue of head coach Steve Kerr, during their visit to the championship earlier this year. Many professional and college sports teams have not been invited to celebrate their championship wins, according to Politico.
But the Lady Tigers were there, regardless. The first lady spoke first, approaching the lectern in a suit the same shade as LSU’s signature purple. “I can’t stop thinking about how far women’s sports have come,” said Jill Biden, echoing comments she made following her initial misstep. “Watching, I felt the story of that moment – of all the women before you who dared to be fast and furious, who ignored criticism and just played.”
She made no reference to her earlier remarks or Reese’s criticism; instead, she praised Reese for breaking major records and said of the team that “in this room I see the best of the best”.
Vice President Harris praised the players for the way they performed on and off the field. “You represent your teammates, your school and your community with dignity and respect,” she said. “You showed the world who you are. You are leaders, you are role models.”
Reese stood facing the crowd in the front row among his teammates huddled on risers like a church choir. She sported a pinched smile and offered polite golfing applause with every line of applause, showing the most enthusiasm when the president praised her for jacking up ticket prices. “Ticket prices have gone up 10 times,” he said. “And more than the men’s matches.”
The only dramatic moment: when one of LSU’s freshman forwards passed out on the stage, collapsing on his teammates before hitting the ground. “We leave our mark everywhere we go,” joked LSU head coach Kim Mulkey before assuring the crowd that his player would be fine. (A few paramedics rolled a stretcher into the White House about 20 minutes after the ceremony ended.)
Towards the end of his address, President Biden lamented that 95% of sports stories are still written about male athletes. “It’s not a problem here, not with this team,” he said with a laugh. Reese smiled knowingly as a wave of silent chuckles swept through the room.
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