OPINION: UGA’s (non) White House visit is another sign of the times

Fans are seated in the stadium for the celebration.  College Football National Champion Georgia Bulldogs celebrate with a parade downtown and and head to a ceremony in Sanford Stadium in Athens, GA, on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023.  (Curtis Compton for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Curtis Compton for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Credit: Curtis Compton for the Atlanta Journal Constitution

Fans are seated in the stadium for the celebration. College Football National Champion Georgia Bulldogs celebrate with a parade downtown and and head to a ceremony in Sanford Stadium in Athens, GA, on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2023. (Curtis Compton for the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The reason the UGA Bulldogs are holding their noses at a White House invite is not hard to fathom: The repeating kings of college football no doubt feel offended by being tossed into a celebratory ceremony with a gaggle of “lesser” sports.

Much has been made of the Dawgs declining an invitation by President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden to visit the White House June 12. There’s speculation that it’s political — and, true, partisan politics have seeped into this mess. Some Dems believe the team is snubbing the president because they are, at heart, red-staters. And certain GOPers are celebrating that the team is doing this to own the libs.

But I believe the two-time champs of the NCAA’s premier sport think the invite reduces them to bit players in a throng of athletes from other college sports.

Instead of having the spotlight to themselves, as champs usually do at the White House, they’d be attending something called “College Athlete Day” and sharing it with dozens of teams. Softball players, wrestlers, swimmers. I mean, c’mon, this is Football, something red-blooded Americans actually watch on prime-time TV.

Sports Illustrated points out that the NCAA holds 90 championships in 24 sports across its three divisions. There could be a couple thousand athletes milling about the White House lawn on June 12, many of whom have never pounded someone into the turf while wearing shoulder pads.

U.S. President Joe Biden is presented a jersey as he welcomes the Atlanta Braves, winners of the 2021 Baseball World Series, in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Monday, Sept. 26, 2022. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

My guess is that Biden’s aides, who are Democrats, are just not sports-minded. They are not clued into how important it is to have the Leader of the Free World joking on camera with 20-year-old athletes with no necks.

The administration’s unfamiliarity with established sporting etiquette was evident last month when Jill Biden wanted to invite both the winners of the women’s basketball tournament, LSU, as well as the losers, Iowa. She was acting in the generous spirit of T-ball where everyone gets a trophy. This caused a fuss, and the second-placers stayed home.

There’s been some finger pointing about UGA’s invitation process, and nailing down a date has been as delicate as getting warring sides to sit down in the Middle East.

Sure, the president has been busy with the pending debt crisis, the war in Ukraine and a recalcitrant Congress. But doesn’t he realize that repeat college football champs are as rare as bi-partisan legislation?

The Bulldogs’ popularity has made them uniters, which is a positive — especially for politicians who love to bask in any reflected glow they can absorb.

In January, two weeks after the Dawgs trounced TCU to become champs, all 16 members of Georgia’s congressional delegation signed a letter asking Biden to host the team “at your earliest convenience.” That means both Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Q-GA, agreed on something.

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart gives thumbs up to the fans as he walks through the  Dawg Walk during the victory parade in Athens on Saturday, January 14, 2023. The Bulldogs are the first back-to-back champions in the College Football Playoff era.  Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

A month later, a defensive lineman complained on Twitter about being slighted, and GOP opportunists quickly saw a lane to bash POTUS. Almost immediately, the White House responded it would be glad to invite the team.

However, both Biden and UGA coach Smart are busy fellows, and there’s been disagreement about who was snubbing who.

UGA, in declining the offer this week to visit on June 12, said it didn’t get an invite until last week and “Unfortunately, the date suggested is not feasible given the student-athlete calendar and time of year.”

The White House said several dates were offered but they weren’t able to reach an agreement.

Coach Smart contended this was not political. It was a scheduling thing.

“We’ve got 700 kids at a football camp at our place June 6, 7, 8,” he told Al.com. “It’s the No. 1 time for recruiting for football coaches. You’ve got 600 to 700 kids coming to your campus. You can’t leave to go to the White House and have no one on your campus.”

June 12 was apparently an open date, but I get it, many players have left for the NFL, for other schools, for a trip home or are just enjoying their time off. Why waste a day travelling to D.C. to share the day with hundreds of other “student-athletes” who compete in relative obscurity?

Now, it may seem odd to have POTUS spending time hobnobbing with jocks. I mean, presidents don’t routinely invite the winners of The Oscars for a ceremony.

But presidents do set aside time for absurd traditions, like pardoning a turkey at Thanksgiving. It really doesn’t mean anything — except to the bird.

Sports fandom is a shared and emotional activity. More so, it allows a politician to glom onto the glory and gives the players a day they’ll never forget. (Obviously, not the UGA players.)

Having winning teams visit the White House has been an American tradition going back to 1865, according to The Atlantic, when President Andrew Johnson invited a champion baseball team. The Civil War had ended months earlier and “the whole point (was) national unity through baseball.”

World Series winners started coming in 1924 and other champs visited as the decades rolled on.

The presidency of Donald Trump made such invites and visits a political thing and now it seems there’s no going back.