After winning its third NCAA championship in five years last March, the Columbia fencing team met President Donald Trump at the White House on Friday morning. The Lions were invited to attend alongside over a dozen other national championship teams in recognition of their victories.
While college football and basketball teams are routinely invited to the White House following an NCAA championship win, sports that receive less media attention, like fencing, are only invited on a rotational basis. This year marked the first time that Columbia’s fencing program has received an invitation.
The Lions who made the trek to the nation’s capital included current members of the fencing squad, as well as members of the championship team from the 2019 graduating class.
But the invitation was met with mixed feelings among the team, leaving members divided on whether or not to attend, and what to do if they did attend. While some saw the visit as a celebration of the team’s success on the highest level, others saw it as an opportunity to voice their disapproval of the Trump administration and its policies.
“It’s a political thing by nature,” Nolen Scruggs, CC ’19, said in an interview with Spectator. “I think at the heart of it is about reaching across the aisle, and what better way of saying that then going to meet someone personally and communicating what you’re feeling.”
Scruggs, alongside other graduates of the team, had planned to lead a demonstration in which team members would wear white buttons, a call to the Time’s Up movement, to highlight the gender diversity of the team. He also cited the Trump administration’s attempts to pass a gag rule on Title X—which would prevent any organization that provides abortion or family planning services from receiving federal funding—as another impetus to don the buttons.
“The way [the] NCAA championship for fencing works is you have to win both the women’s event and the men’s event collectively,” Scruggs said. “So by doing that, we demonstrate how we’ve not only made the financial investment, but the investment and effort in making sure both sides have equal opportunity to do what they want to do with their fencing and contribute to what is the Columbia fencing team.”
Scruggs, along with some other members of the team, had also planned to carry letters to hold in the team photo with Trump, with the intention of handing them to Trump during the ceremonial handshake.
The letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Spectator, states: “We find that the victory for which you mean to honor us today cannot be separated from the diversity that comprises our team. To deny the people of the United States equal social opportunity is to deny the ability for such diversity to flourish.” The letter was signed by four team members from the class of 2019: Elise Gout, Quinn Crum, Ilana Solomon, and Scruggs.
In contrast, other team members believed that a trip to the White House is more representative of the accomplishments of the Light Blue than a political statement.
“I think it’s a celebratory event for our NCAA championship team,” Sidarth Kumbla, CC ’21, said. “Although I don’t necessarily agree with the [Trump] administration itself, I don’t think that going to the White House to celebrate our achievement doesn’t predicate any support from our team to the administration.”
While some fencers could not make the visit due to scheduling conflicts with other events—including World Cup tournaments abroad—those able to attend had to make a choice: visit the White House, go on an alternative trip to a local Washington D.C. museum, or sit the visit out altogether.
Karolina Nixon, CC ’22, who was among those unable to attend the White House visit because of conflicts with the Designated Junior World Cup in Laupheim, Germany, shared a similar sentiment to Kumbala, arguing that the purpose of the visit is solely to highlight the success of Columbia fencing.
“I just don’t think it needs to be politicized in a way that some people are making it,” Nixon said.
While members of the team have asserted that the love and respect between team members has not faltered, Nixon noted the implications of the invitation on the team’s dynamic.
“With all the polarization regarding President Trump, I automatically knew it was going to be an issue,” she said.
To Scruggs, his reason for protesting was to bring to light issues he had with the Trump administration.
“[It’s] not necessarily even about getting Donald Trump on my side; it’s about making a message that hopefully will reverberate on social media and the news,” he said. “Colin Kaepernick didn’t change the mind of NFL owners, but [he] generated a lot of useful conversations that I think can push real movement in the world.”
According to Scruggs, Gout, and Calvin Liang, CC ’19, however, they were prevented from delivering the letter directly to Trump by White House staffers, who informed them that they were not allowed to bring any objects into the room where the team would be meeting with the president. They said that the staffers did allow them to wear their buttons while taking the team photo with President Trump.
Scruggs, Gout, and Liang also claimed that they were told by a White House staffer that their letter would be given to the president after the event.
“In the heat of the moment, we assessed that it was the best and only option to give [the staffer] the letter. In terms of the president actually receiving the letter, [it’s] supposedly happening, but we are obviously skeptical,” Liang said.
“He’ll get it on the internet though,” Scruggs later joked.
The White House could not be reached for comment at the time of publication.
To other members of the team, the attempted demonstration goes against the purpose of the event: to highlight exceptional athletes across the United States.
“I don’t think [the visit is] the time or the place to do it. We’re getting an invitation to be honored for an accomplishment and we should treat it like that. We’re athletes; we’re professionals. Yes we’re students, yes we have our political options, yes we have all of those things, but at the end of the day I think we can maintain respect or professionalism,” Nixon said.