WNBA champions are once again welcome in the White House

Seattle Storm players celebrated their victory and a less politically charged restoration of a sports tradition.

Candice Norwood

Originally published by The 19th

The Seattle Storm, the 2020 WNBA champions, met with President Joe Biden on Monday, becoming the first professional basketball team since 2016 to visit the White House.

The visit marks the restoration of an annual tradition that had, until the Trump administration, been a mostly apolitical act. NBA teams stopped making post-championship visits to the White House during the Trump administration, which was marked by years of public animosity between the former president and professional athletes, many of whom criticized his policies and rhetoric. The WNBA champions were never even invited by Trump, and at the time players also expressed their lack of interest in meeting with him.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert attended the White House event, as did the team president and CEO, Alisha Valavanis, and three members of the 2020 U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team: Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd.

“President Biden, thank you so much for welcoming us into the White House, as people who are a part of women’s sports,” said Bird, a point guard with the Storm. “It feels good to be back in this place, and to have our achievements celebrated this way.”

In the White House press conference, Biden highlighted not only the team’s athletic success, but also its role in supporting the WNBA’s push for justice and equity.

“What makes this team remarkable is they don’t just win games, they change lives,” Biden said. “Encouraging people to get vaccines so we can beat this pandemic, speaking out and standing up for racial justice and voting rights, supporting education … and trying to protect trans youth from an epidemic of violence and discrimination.”

During the 2020 season, when athletes and staff lived in an isolated complex in Florida for an abbreviated 22-game season, players did not “leave behind the pain, grief and fury of the movement for social change that was [happening] across our country, stirred up by the ongoing crisis of police killings of Black people,” said Ginny Gilder, the Storm’s owner.

Members of the WNBA emerged as vocal advocates for change during last year’s social unrest following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The league and its players’ union, WNBPA, launched a social justice council, on which Storm forward Breanna Stewart is a member, to raise awareness and donate funds to address systemic issues, including public health, voting rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy.

Within Seattle, the Storm, led by former center Crystal Langhorne, launched the Force4Change initiative dedicated to supporting voter registration, Black women, LGBTQ+ leaders of color and organizations serving Black communities. This work includes $100,000 donations to the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

“It’s not just about amplifying,” Langhorne said at the White House. “It’s about investing in communities that have been underserved and working with the organizations that have been leading the way in the space.”

Speaking with reporters outside the White House, Bird also noted other ways that women in basketball and beyond are breaking barriers in leadership positions, including the recent appointment of WNBA champion Kristi Toliver as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks.

“There’s so many women out there, and so now that those doors are opening up, I just think it’s really smart,” Bird said. “It’s incredibly smart to have women, you know, in the room, helping you with decisions, helping you guide things, because that perspective is crucial.”

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