New Question for a Frequent Champion: Whether to Meet the President

by admin February 18, 2017 at 12:39 am

“The fact that in all the 11 championships I’ve never been asked this question says something about where we are” as a country, Mr. Auriemma said. “Forget the answer. The fact that I’ve never been asked means there’s something going on that isn’t normal.”

UConn has won 100 consecutive games since 2014. And while the Huskies are not a lock to win a 12th title, they are favored again to cut down the nets in triumph at the Final Four in Dallas. Now coaches, current players and the team’s former stars are wrestling with the issue of whether UConn should visit the White House in celebration.

The Huskies’ players are amateurs, some still teenagers, not professionals with agents, union protection and multimillion-dollar contracts. They have kept up with the current political situation, and the responses by other athletes, through social media and classroom discussions. Their own reactions were nuanced and considered.

Even before Mr. Trump was elected, UConn players jokingly told one another, “We’re not going if he wins,” the sophomore forward Napheesa Collier said. “Now that it’s actually happened, if we win, I don’t know what everyone’s going to do.”

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Coach Geno Auriemma, left, gave the president a basketball after Connecticut’s 2015 championship.

Credit
Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press

Ms. Stewart and Maya Moore, another former UConn star, said they expected that whatever decision the team made, it would be done collectively. Gabby Williams, a junior forward, agreed.

“That’s just what we’ve built here,” Ms. Williams, the team’s most complete player, said. “We don’t have guys that do their own thing. Whatever we do, it’ll be a unified decision.”

If some players did not want to attend a White House celebration, Ms. Collier said, “I really don’t know what I would do in that position; I guess we have to get there first.”

Mr. Auriemma, who will turn 63 during the N.C.A.A. tournament, said the dilemma for him was reconciling respect for the office of the presidency with the possibility that some players might object to meeting Mr. Trump, feeling unwelcome at the White House because of the president’s statements and positions on women, minorities, immigrants and Muslims.

“If we’re fortunate enough to win it, and your players walk in and go, ‘Listen, I’m not going,’ we’ve never had to deal with that before,” Mr. Auriemma said.

“What are you going to do as a coach?” he continued. “It’s not like I can look it up and go, ‘What did other people do?’ We’re in a world that very few of us could have conceived five years ago.”

What would he do?

“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a good question.”

There is no pressing need for an answer now, he understands, no need to cross a point of no return. The national championship game is not until April 2, and there is no guarantee that UConn will be playing or winning.

“I’m not crossing the Rubicon,” Mr. Auriemma said. “That’s Caesar. Once your army crosses that river, you are an enemy of the state.”

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In 2014, Mr. Obama saluted title-winning women’s and men’s teams from UConn.

Credit
Gabriella Demczuk/The New York Times

Mr. Auriemma is no supporter of Mr. Trump. He made that clear last summer in Rio de Janeiro while coaching the American women’s team to a second consecutive Olympic gold medal under him and sixth in a row over all. Asked whether dominance by the United States was good for women’s basketball, he told reporters, “We live in that Trumpian era where it’s O.K. to be sexist and degrade people that are good, just because they’re the opposite sex.”

He later expressed shock that Mr. Trump had been elected president.

But Mr. Auriemma is also the most visible representative of Connecticut’s flagship public university. And he has lived a classic immigrant success story, having been born in Italy and then moving to suburban Philadelphia as a boy, winning a record number of N.C.A.A. basketball titles and becoming wealthy in the process. He speaks reverently of the presidency as a symbol of “the most that this country can represent.”

He tells of his mother, Marsiella, being overcome with tears when she shook hands and took a photograph with President Obama. And how boosters accompanying the team have variously complained about the policies of President Bill Clinton, President George W. Bush and President Obama on trips to Washington, yet “once they get down there, he puts his hand out and he says, ‘Welcome to the White House,’ and they just melt.”

“Because it’s the president of the United States,” he said.

One should not easily dismiss an opportunity to meet any president, Mr. Auriemma said. “In order to do that,” he said, “you’ve got to have some pretty strong convictions. And we’ve got some pretty socially activist players on our team.”

Sue Bird, the former UConn point guard who won two N.C.A.A. titles and two of her four Olympic gold medals while playing for Mr. Auriemma, said that if some players felt unwelcome at the White House, he would surely take that into consideration.

“I think he’s somebody that understands where he is in this world and what he represents and the platform he has,” Ms. Bird said. “And I don’t think he’s shy about speaking out on his feelings. And with that, I wouldn’t be surprised, to be honest, if they didn’t go.”

Ms. Bird stressed that she was speaking about her own observations, not about any impression that Mr. Auriemma had directly given her. Any decision, she said, would be a “tough call” and would be made by the coach with the intent of protecting his players.

“Because, in reality, they’re kids,” Ms. Bird said. “So it’s hard to know what to do.”

The Huskies are a diverse team ethnically and culturally, and as with any team, there are varied political opinions, players said.

“I don’t think the entire team wouldn’t go,” said Kia Nurse, a junior guard from Hamilton, Ontario. “It would be an interesting thing.”

Forward Batouly Camara, a native of Manhattan and a transfer from Kentucky who is practicing with UConn but not playing this season, is a Muslim whose parents immigrated from the West African nation Guinea.

Her mother, who holds dual citizenship, has been reluctant to travel back to Guinea, where she runs an orphanage, Ms. Camara said, even though Mr. Trump’s travel ban does not target the country. But she added, “I don’t feel anything harsh or anything at all” toward the president.

Ms. Camara said she had received “an overwhelming amount of support” from teammates, coaches and others in the UConn community, for which she was grateful.

She said she expected the team to stick together in making a decision about the White House. “If we decided to go and do something there,” Ms. Camara said, “that could be a platform for us.”

The family of Ms. Collier, the sophomore forward, has a history of political involvement. Her paternal grandfather, Gershon Collier, was a diplomat in the West African nation Sierra Leone who helped secure the country’s independence from Britain in 1961. He later became its ambassador to the United States and chief justice.

“I think it’s a really touchy subject,” Ms. Collier said of a potential visit to the White House. “For me, personally, I don’t really support Trump, but I would still go out of respect for my team. But I don’t know how everybody else feels about it.”

She added, “We kind of try to stay away from politics a little bit, especially because it’s getting so heated.”

Ms. Williams, UConn’s best player, said her personal view would be to visit the White House.

“It shows, despite my feelings, or anyone’s feelings, that’s just kind of the respectful thing to do,” she said, adding that it “kind of makes you look like the bigger person, too.”

But, she said, “to each his own, and people are free to make their own decisions.”

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