“We’re in a city where decisions are made,” Christian said Thursday in a phone interview. “We’re a few blocks from the White House, two blocks from the Lincoln Memorial, so protests and those things don’t really rattle us because we see it so often. There’s no way to really know that that sort of protest is going to be any different than other protests that have come through here.”
Following this summer’s unrest, GW built its home schedule to include earlier start times, with few scheduled to start later than 3 p.m., to better navigate any potential curfews imposed by D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser. The team learned last weekend of a protest that could interfere with Wednesday’s game, which had been scheduled for 6 p.m.
When Christian spoke Tuesday with Director of Athletics Tanya Vogel, they discussed contingency plans if the demonstration escalated, and agreed to call the game by either noon or 2 p.m. on Wednesday.
U-Mass. players and coaches had already run into supporters of President Trump on Tuesday, some of whom were staying at the same hotel less than a mile from the White House, and were drinking and smoking cigarettes on the patio outside the hotel lounge.
“There was several people outside when our bus pulled up and started screaming, started chanting, and started saying things directly at our players,” said Minutemen Coach Matt McCall Friday in a video conference, noting the use of expletives and possibly a racial slur. “Our guys grabbed their bags and went straight into the hotel.”
As he walked to a coffee shop across the street on Wednesday morning, McCall noticed a crowd starting to gather ahead of Trump’s rally to protest the electoral college certification of President-elect Joe Biden.
“There was families, there was babies, infants,” McCall said. “It was pretty surreal.”
By midday, as the crowd advanced to the Capitol building, McCall pondered whether the team would need a police escort to the game, or whether they could even get one. As the crowd morphed into a mob, he called UMass Athletic Director Ryan Bamford and a representative from the Atlantic 10 Conference.
“It just became evident that we needed to get out of that area,” he said.
On his morning drive by the National Mall, Christian noted a “ton of flags: Trump flags, American flags, Confederate flags. Large groups of people not wearing masks.”
The sound of sirens and a trembling phone roused Christian from his pregame nap Wednesday afternoon. He checked social media and then with Vogel, followed by the team’s director of operations and finally, his players.
An hour later, as the images of bodies pouring into the Capitol played on television screens, the conversation shifted from whether to postpone or cancel the game to “should we get the players out of D.C., should I get them to my house, should we get them to a hotel?”
“We’re not too far from any of that so when people start breaking into buildings that’s a scary thing for everyone,” Christian said. “We all respect the right to protest but when you start breaking into places and federal buildings, who’s safe? That two-hour window was pretty alarming.”
When Bowser issued the 6 p.m. curfew. George Washington ordered one of its own for players and marshaled extra security for their dorm buildings, while basketball staff updated parents.
The second-year coach, who takes pride in facilitating sociopolitical conversations in his locker room, said players were shocked, and didn’t discuss the riot much beyond calling it “wrong.”
Meanwhile, McCall was devising his team’s next steps. A departure through the hotel lobby felt precarious, with protesters walking the streets just outside and with several staying at the hotel. Within 15 minutes, Minutemen players packed their bags, met on the second floor, then followed a back staircase to an alley where they met the team’s bus, which took them to a chartered flight out of Dulles International Airport.
In the days since the Capitol riot, GW’s Jan. 13 home game against Virginia Commonwealth was moved up to 2 p.m. because of the city’s curfew. The school did not make players available to speak, but said Christian’s comments represent the team’s feelings.
“Having come from all over the country and at different stages in their college careers, each is interpreting, adjusting, reacting and learning in the way that’s best for them — but as nobody’s experience can truly speak for the team’s as one, best to have Coach’s thoughts speak to what the group as a whole is tackling,” a team official said.
McCall has tried to keep UMass practices light by regularly joking with players or jumping into shooting competitions with them. Guard Carl Pierre said players have been digesting the contrast in treatment between Black Lives Matter protesters last summer versus the largely White mob on Wednesday.
“It might have been a little bit tough to focus then but I think being back now, it’s definitely a welcoming thing to be able to focus on basketball, and it’s kind of a way to relieve tension and stress in regard to what’s going on right now,” Pierre said.