Reese lifted the white sweater and held it like a banner across the room. “FLOTUS” was written on the back, with a large purple “46” embroidered with yellow stitching.
Applause gave way to a collective “awww” as Reese, even taller than her usual six-foot-tall in a pair of pointy heels, half-bent over to give five-foot-tall Jill a hug.
For a sporty first lady caught up in the rare political fracas, Reese’s gesture was a meaningful help.
The first lady committed a technical error last month when she suggested so the Iowa Hawkeyes, who thoroughly thrashed LSU in the title game, might have deserved an invitation to the White House as well. “I know we will have the champions come to the White House, we always do,” she said casually after the game. “So we hope that LSU comes. But you know, I’m going to tell Joe I think Iowa should come too, because they played such a good game.” Reese, who earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player Award, was rejected the first lady’s eagerness to reward both sides. “A JOKE,” Reese tweeted in response to Biden’s suggestion.
Jill Biden’s blunder about women’s basketball and its endless ramifications
The Lady Tigers were wary of the Biden White House even before the first lady’s post-game blunder. President Biden’s March Madness streak had failed to flatter the underdog team’s potential, leading LSU to decline Jill Biden’s offer to come to their locker room before the championship game, according to Reese. (“He didn’t even push us to get out of Baton Rouge,” she said.) There was also the impression that Iowa, a mostly white team, had received more favorable media coverage than LSU, a mostly black team. team – especially the criticism of Reese’s use of the same taunting gesture one of her White Iowa opponents had used in an earlier game. In that context, the first lady’s impromptu idea of celebrating both teams exacerbated an undercurrent of disrespect. “If we lost,” Reese later said in a podcast, “we wouldn’t be invited to the White House.”
The White House hurried back on the defensive. A spokesperson for the first lady said Biden’s comments were “intended to applaud the historic game” and recognize “how far women have progressed in the sport since passing Title IX.” On Friday of that week, President Biden took the unusual step of individually calling Reese to congratulate her on her victory. Reese eventually agreed to attend the ceremony — but not before digging deeper. “We’re going to the Obamas,” she said on the podcast. ‘I’m going to Michelle’s. I’m going to Barack’s.’
Uncomfortable! But not unprecedented. Lately, the Obamas have been a haven for sports champions unimpressed by more recent White House residents. Receptions for US sports champions became particularly fraught occasions during Donald Trump’s presidency: Few teams accepted Trump’s invitations to celebrate with him. Some never received an invitation, while others had theirs withdrawn. (The 2017 Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, memorably replaced their event with a “Celebration of America” party on the White House lawn after some players spoke out against the president’s criticism of players who knee during the national anthem.) The Golden State Warriors, two-time NBA champions during Trump’s presidency, rejected opportunities to celebrate at the White House and met Obama instead.
The 44th President had spent most of his high school basketball career as a benchwarmer, but nevertheless played a pick-up game with the NBA’s biggest stars for his 50th birthday, including Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Chris Paul. (Not to say certain athletes didn’t skip him either: Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk refused to join his team in celebrating their 2013 Super Bowl victory in protest of Obama’s stance on abortion rights, while Boston Bruins- goaltender Tim Thomas, a staunch tea party conservative, declined his team’s visit to the 2012 Stanley Cup.)
Championship celebrations haven’t lost a political patina under Biden, but that’s because the players’ politics are more aligned with his own. For example, when the Milwaukee Bucks came to the White House to celebrate their win in the 2021 NBA Championship, Biden thanked them for inspiring the entire league shutdown to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha , Wisconsin in 2020. The Golden State Warriors held a roundtable discussion on gun violence, a hobby of head coach Steve Kerr, during their championship visit earlier this year. According to Politico, many professional and college sports teams have not been invited to celebrate their championship victories.
But the Lady Tigers were there, in spite of everything. The first lady spoke first and approached 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 in the wake of her first faux pas. “As I watched, I felt the history of that moment — of all the women before you who dared to be fast and furious, who ignored the critics and just played.”
She made no reference to her earlier comments, nor to Reese’s criticisms; instead, she complimented Reese for shattering big records, saying of the team that “I see the best of the best in this room.”
Vice President Harris praised the players for how they behaved on and off the field. “You represent your teammates, your school and your community with dignity and respect,” she said. “You have shown the world who you are. You are leaders, you are role models.”
Reese stood facing the crowd in the front row between her teammates who huddled on risers like a church choir. She smiled tensely and politely offered wave claps with each line of applause, showing most enthusiasm when the president commended her for driving up ticket prices. “The cost of tickets has increased tenfold,” he said. “And more than the men’s games.”
The only moment of drama: when one of LSU’s freshman forwards passed out on stage and collapsed on top of her teammates before hitting the ground. “We leave our mark wherever we go,” joked LSU head coach Kim Mulkey before assuring the crowd that her player would be fine. (A pair of EMTs rolled a stretcher into the White House about 20 minutes after the ceremony ended.)
Near the end of his remarks, President Biden lamented that 95 percent of sports stories are still written about male athletes. “It’s not a problem here though – not with this team,” he said with a laugh. Reese grinned knowingly as a wave of silent chuckles swept the room.