First lady Jill Biden was in attendance at the NCAA Tournament women's basketball championship game between LSU and Iowa. She was part of the record-breaking 19,482 people at the game, which set a new high-water mark for attendance at the women's Final Four.
The overwhelming attendance and viewership — 9.9 million viewers, the most-viewed women's college basketball game of all time — were a great step forward for women's basketball and women's sports in America.
What Biden did Monday morning in Colorado might have taken us two steps back.
Biden Suggested Altering a Decades Long Precedent
In a speech to state leaders at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, Biden touched on her experience at Sunday's game. She congratulated LSU, which won its first national championship in program history, and looked forward to welcoming the Tigers to the White House — as has become the tradition for professional, college and Olympic champions. Then she went one step further.
"I know we'll have the champions come to the White House, we always do. So, we hope LSU will come," Biden said. "But, you know, I'm going to tell Joe I think Iowa should come, too, because they played such a good game."
Wait a minute — what did she say?
This statement, which was likely innocuous and intended simply as a platitude for Iowa, put the first lady in an awkward situation — and, rightly so, drew ire and skepticism from across the country.
Runner-Ups Don't Get White House Invites
Sports teams have been visiting the White House since at least the Andrew Johnson administration in 1865. Baseball teams, including the 1924 Washington Senators — the first World Series champions — were followed by NBA champions when the Boston Celtics visited John F. Kennedy in January 1963.
The first NCAA champion to visit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. was Indiana University men's basketball team, hosted by Gerald Ford in April 1976.
There are no White House visits for runners-up. For starters, to offer the loser of the championship game the same honor of meeting the president seems deeply disrespectful to the winning team. It would also be an incredibly awkward ceremony for a team that has lost — Iowa likely doesn't want to be at the White House out of pity — not to mention unnecessary logistics and time commitment for the president if this were to become the norm.
LSU star Angel Reese, who has come under fire for her own actions during the national championship game, took umbrage with Biden's comments, tweeting that her suggestion that both teams should be invited was a "Joke." TV sports personality Stephen A Smith agreed with her, tweeting "I mean absolutely zero disrespect to the First Lady, but you are 1000% correct."
Hey @Reese10Angel, I mean absolutely zero disrespect to the First Lady, but you are 1000% correct. That is a bad suggestion. Runner-ups don?t get invited to the White House. Why are we trying to change it now? I completely agree with you, Angel. https://t.co/xqs2cs9Zr9
— Stephen A Smith (@stephenasmith) April 4, 2023
A Step Backward for Women's Sports
Teams don't get invited to the Washington because they played well or showed good sportsmanship — and frankly, Iowa didn't do either. The Hawkeyes got blown out by 17 points and lost its cool as frustration mounted.
The biggest issue with Biden's comments is not necessarily the fact that she suggested inviting both teams to the White House. By suggesting that the losing team from the women's championship game should be recognized as well, she is softening the blow for a women's team in a way in which would be unthinkable were she talking about men's teams.
Biden is — unintentionally, I believe — setting back women's sports with an insinuation that Iowa can't handle the fact that it lost, the way San Diego State men's basketball and so many other teams must do.
Iowa doesn't want to be pitied, and I would imagine it doesn't want to come to the White House for empty platitudes. They know it's not their right, and Biden should have known as well.
Her press secretary, Vanessa Valdivia, has already walked back the comments and confirmed that LSU will be the only team invited to visit the White House, but I believe that some damage — unintended or no — has been done.
This year's women's basketball Final Four smashed records for viewership and interest. We are on the right path to bringing the men's and women's tournaments closer to an equal footing in national recognition. We need to remember that the way we talk about the teams should reflect their toughness — physically and emotionally — to deal with the final result.
Her comments in Colorado were intended to applaud the historic game and all women athletes. She looks forward to celebrating the LSU Tigers on their championship win at the White House.
— Vanessa Valdivia (@vvaldivia46) April 4, 2023
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