This piece was originally intended as an open letter to the Columbia Fencing Team, urging them to accept the presidential invitation to the White House. It has since been edited to reflect the time passed.
Earlier this month, the Columbia fencing team received an invitation to the White House to be honored for winning the 2019 NCAA championship. The announcement of the invitation immediately polarized our team. Some fencers expressed their intentions not to attend, others were hesitantly excited, and many were more preoccupied with the potential optics of their decision than their personal feelings about the invitation. Even though the Columbia fencing team already went to the White House last week, I still think it is important to note the significance of this event—not only the larger significance of the team’s visit but the smaller significance of the individual decisions made by Columbia fencers. Columbia fencers had the choice as to whether or not they would personally accept the president’s invitation to the White House, and the majority chose to attend.
Unfortunately, this decision did not apply to me (despite the fact that I am on the fencing team), since I was representing the country in an entirely different capacity: competing for the United States at a Junior World Cup in Laupheim, Germany. But I still would like to discuss how important I think it was for my fellow teammates to personally accept the invitation.
I consider that decision to be pretty damn brave. In today’s political atmosphere, on Columbia’s ultra-liberal campus, during this particular election year, you may reasonably fear the social ramifications of visiting the Trump White House. You may fear political ramifications—being incorrectly or uncomfortably labeled as a conservative, a Republican, or worse (especially on this campus): a Trump supporter. But I urged my teammates to keep in mind one thing: This decision does not have to be a definitive statement of your personal politics. The recognition of your accomplishment does not need to be politicized, and accepting a presidential invitation does not constitute support for the incumbent. It should be possible to visit the White House out of pride in our accomplishment and respect for the office of the president of the United States without being labeled (properly or improperly) as a Trump supporter.
Furthermore, the fact that we as collegiate athletes even had the option of accepting or rejecting a presidential invitation is in and of itself a privilege. In some other countries, we may not have a choice. It should not merely be a point of pride to us as NCAA champions to be invited to the White House. It should be a point of pride to us as American athletes that we were offered an invitation, as opposed to an order.
But I know that for many fencers on the team, visiting the White House out of a sense of national pride or respect for the presidential office was insufficient. The decision still felt inherently political, and some fencers felt that declining the presidential invitation was the most effective way to demonstrate their opposition toward President Donald Trump or his policies. (A few fencers chose to attend and try to deliver a letter to the president, but that’s a subject for another essay.) But I think a much stronger statement was made by the fencers who chose to attend, and in doing so, continued one of the most important legacies of American athletics.
I believe the history of American athletics has consistently demonstrated one clear message regarding the confrontation of controversy: Choosing to attend an event and taking a stand for what you believe in always makes a stronger statement than sitting at home. Take Jesse Owens, the Black track and field athlete who chose to compete at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany (and won four Olympic golds). Take Kathrine Switzer, who registered as a man to run in the 1967 Boston Marathon, and famously evaded race officials trying to physically impede her from participating in the event. Or the members of the 1971 U.S. table tennis team, whose demonstration of sportsmanship with Chinese athletes at the World Table Tennis Championships in Japan led to a reinstatement of diplomatic relations between the United States and China. Any one of these athletes could have chosen to stay at home and all faced backlash for their decision not to. But their resolve to participate in controversial events demonstrates clear support for attendance, or at the very least activeness when faced with a controversial decision. To me, this makes perfect sense. We’re athletes; sitting out does not impress us.
So my fellow Columbia fencers, even though the White House invitation (and all the controversy that came with it) already came and went, I encourage you to continue to realize how important of a statement it was to be invited and to have gone. In the future, if you’re given another invitation to the White House or any other similarly significant event, make a statement that you will not allow your sport and your accomplishments in that sport to be politicized. In the future, when faced with decisions such as this White House invitation, make a statement that the spirit of camaraderie in athletics is stronger than the divisiveness of a controversial invitation. Make a statement that the Columbia fencing team is what it claims to be: a family that supports each other no matter the circumstance.
And most importantly, if you do not support President Trump (which I should now say I very often don’t), consider how even more important your visit to the White House was. For those of you that attended, you have shown that your pride in your country and your accomplishment is more important than your feelings about the current president. You have shown that this current president is not the only representative of our country. He and his administration alone do not define this country. We do. And what we chose to do in this situation was more representative of our country and our country’s values than of President Trump.
The author is a sophomore in Columbia College, intending to major in American Studies and concentrate in Polish language and Culture. She is a member of the Columbia Fencing Team and the USA Junior National Team. The opinions stated here only reflect the view of the author and do not represent those of the fencing team as a whole.
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