NCAA champion fencers plan to confront President Trump during White House celebration

CLEVELAND, OH - MARCH 24: The Columbia Lions celebrate their national title during the Division I Women's Fencing Championship held at The Wolstein Center on the Cleveland State University campus on March 24, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)
The Columbia Lions will use their time with President Trump to make a statement. (Jason Miller/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

The Columbia University fencing team was invited to the White House for its third co-ed fencing title in five years, which was won last March, its 16th overall as a program (fifth co-ed).

The team told the Washington Post it got the invite two weeks ago and discussed attending the ceremony, which will include several NCAA champions in non-revenue sports. Rather than quietly skip the opportunity, the athletes who are attending decided to present President Donald Trump a letter rebuking his policies and approach to gender issues.

It’s a move team captains Nolen Scruggs and Elise Gout told the Post fights for the values the team used to win a national title.

Fencers confront White House on gender issues in letter

Four members of the Columbia team signed the two-page letter written to Trump, which the Washington Post published in full here. It reads, in part:

Mr. President, fencing is one of only three co-educational sports in the NCAA. To win the National Championship requires the strength and the aptitude of a combined force of gender identities, none of which have any greater importance or stature than the next. We as collegiate fencers have committed our athletic careers to understanding how our individual strengths, irrespective of gender, may be best leveraged for the advancement of the collective. But while ours is a victory born from values of gender equality, yours is one shadowed by continued acts of gender-based prejudice and partisanship.

The letter references removing protective measures in Title IX that protect survivors of sexual assault, “choking access” to family planning and contraceptive care and “perpetuat[ing] a culture that conditions women and minority gender identities to be silent.”

We ask that you recognize the harms to gender equality within the actions of your administration — be they by appointment, by policy, or even by your own language.

About half of the 40-member team won’t visit the White House due to either scheduling or political disagreement, per the Post. Some of those who are visiting plan to bring multiple signed copies of the letter, attempt to hand it to the president in a handshake photo op and hold copies high in photographs.

They’ll also be wearing white lapel pins, a color that has become associated with women’s suffrage and the fight for women’s rights. Celebrities wore black-and-white ribbons and bands for the Time’s Up movement in January.

Team wants to make noise with visit rather than skip

Many athletes have chosen to skip the White House visit, whether as a collective or as an individual. Earlier this month the Washington Nationals’ Sean Doolittle declined to attend due to “divisive rhetoric and the enabling of conspiracy theories and widening the divide in this country.”

Gout told the Post declining the invitation would be quiet, but doing this is “making noise and causing a ruckus and starting a discussion.”

Non-revenue sports visiting the White House are typically a less popular affair for any sitting president. Few would have noticed the Columbia squad making the trip, or declining it, but a demonstration always grabs attention. Via the Post:

“There is this larger conversation over whether athletes should have political views or use their platforms in political ways, but if we are being recognized for our success, we need to stand up for the things that allowed us to have that success in the first place,” Gout said. “We have a responsibility to fight for the values that led us to become national champions. In my opinion, the values that allowed us to win are not valued by this administration.”

Scruggs added that if the administration uses the team as a showcase — for example, sharing on Twitter — it wants it to acknowledge its values.

Visiting the Trump White House

The Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia Eagles have each had their invitations rescinded or never given after announcing they would not attend. In the MLB, the Nationals and Boston Red Sox have visited but without a full team.

Trump has been seemingly even less inclined to invite women’s teams to the White House. The Minnesota Lynx of the WNBA chose to celebrate their championship with a community service day in Washington, D.C., after never getting an invite. LeBron James called it “laughable at this point” and Trump did not extend invites to champions the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics.

After a wild World Cup summer, he said he would invite the U.S. women’s national team, but to this point he hasn’t reportedly done so. Megan Rapinoe and teammates have said they would not attend.

As Lindsay Gibbs detailed in her Power Plays newsletter, this year’s NCAA Collegiate National Champions Day at the White House — the first since 2017 — will feature many women’s teams. The Stanford women’s water polo team explained its decision to attend on Twitter, noting it doesn’t usually get invited. It is the first of the program’s seven national title teams to get the invite.

Trump did celebrate the Baylor women’s basketball team this past spring and Team USA Olympic and Paralympic athletes in April 2018, though many top stars did not attend.

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