Mamadi Diakite

Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite answers questions from Dave Koehn during a celebration honoring the Virginia Cavaliers for winning the NCAA men's basketball national championship at Scott Stadium on Saturday.

The presidential tweet was sent at 12:43 a.m. on April 9, a nod to athletic greatness but also the impetus for a contentious conversation.

“Congratulations to Virginia — Great game!” President Donald Trump tweeted.

The message was retweeted by the official Virginia Sports account.

It had long been an expectation that winners of major professional and college sports championships visit the White House, but there has been a deviation from the trend since Trump took office in January 2017.

Coach Tony Bennett was asked Saturday what it means for a national champion to visit the White House in 2019 and if he had engaged in conversations with the White House.

“Today is all about celebrating the national championship, with this team and this community,” Bennett said of a celebration with fans at Scott Stadium. “There’s no information about the White House, and again, this is just going to be about us today, and taking it in.”

Charlottesville-area residents are split over whether the team should visit Trump, who declared that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the deadly Unite the Right rally in the city on Aug. 11-12, 2017, when white nationalists and neo-Nazis were confronted by counter-protestors.

“I still struggle to get past the sour taste that the individual who is in the president’s office left in my mouth with his statements,” said Don Gathers, a former member of the Charlottesville Police Civilian Review Board and a deacon at First Baptist Church. “He still hasn’t apologized to our community for those statements.”

In college basketball, no Division I champion — men’s or women’s — has met with Trump.

In 2017, the North Carolina men’s basketball team did not attend despite an invite. The South Carolina women’s basketball team, which is coached by Virginia alum Dawn Staley, did not receive an invite for several months, and later declined to attend a mid-November celebration for multiple NCAA championships.

In 2018, neither the Villanova men’s team nor the Notre Dame women’s basketball team received invitations. After the Baylor women’s team’s 2019 national championship, coach Kim Mulkey said she’d be “honored” to go to the White House.

But questions remain concerning Virginia, leaving area residents to debate the merits of such a visit.

Tanesha Hudson, a local activist and filmmaker, was blunt in her assessment.

“If any black player goes, he’s not paying attention, period,” Hudson said, referencing Trump’s leaked comments that the United States should not accept immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Haiti, El Salvador and African nations. Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite is from Guinea.

Gathers said he hoped Bennett would leave the decision up to his players.

“If it’s a decision of the team that they go, I think it would be improper for any of them not to go,” Gathers said. “If he leaves it up to them, I would hope athletes black or white elect not to go.”

College Republicans at the University of Virginia said they support the players regardless of their decision.

“We’re incredibly proud of our team, and the impressive achievements made in the past several weeks,” the organization said. “If invited, we do hope they attend, but we will still be proud either way.”

The Clemson football team attended the White House shortly after it won the 2019 national championship. Amid a partial government shutdown in mid-January, Trump served the team Wendy’s and McDonald’s, as well as other fast-food items.

The Tigers also went to the White House after winning in 2017, and Alabama did the same in 2018.

“I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision,” Gathers said. “If I had to make it individually, it would be very easy for me to decide. But I’m not sure how Coach Bennett or [Virginia Director of Athletics] Carla Williams will choose to address it and deal with it. I’ll have to respect the decisions they make.”

Trump has feuded with professional basketball and football players.

Los Angeles Lakers star Lebron James referred to the president as a “bum” after Trump uninvited the Golden State Warriors following the team’s 2017 NBA championship. Warriors star Stephen Curry said he was not interested in meeting Trump.

In response to NFL players kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality, Trump made a pointed comment:

“Wouldn’t you love to see those NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now! Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!'”

In September 2016, several members of the Virginia men’s basketball team posted a photo to social media of the team taking a knee.

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