Since at least the time of Ronald Reagan, sports have provided American presidents from both political parties a chance to rub elbows with — and, perhaps, gather some cultural stardust from — immensely popular figures who transcend politics.
Inviting championship teams to the White House or throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at a baseball game was, one former aide to Bill Clinton recalled this week, the "rare risk-free, high-reward photo op."
But rather than embrace professional athletes as a way to broaden his political appeal, President Trump has used them as a constant foil for his presidency — fuel for stoking the culture wars and serving as sometimes unwitting antagonists in his personal feuds.
Trump has jousted with National Football League players over their decision to kneel during the national anthem in protest of police brutality; sparred with National Basketball Association stars Stephen Curry and LeBron James over his decision to rescind a White House visit for the Golden State Warriors; and demanded an apology from ESPN anchor Jemele Hill for her criticism of him as a "white supremacist."
Over the past few days, Trump has on two occasions denounced the father of a University of California at Los Angeles basketball player by name on Twitter, calling LaVar Ball "ungrateful" for the president's help in resolving a shoplifting charge in China for his son, LiAngelo, and two other players and suggesting he should have left them to face jail time. And on Monday morning, Trump suggested that the NFL should consider disciplinary action after Oakland Raiders running back Marshawn Lynch failed to stand during the anthem at a game on Sunday.
"Great disrespect!" Trump declared in a tweet. "Next time NFL should suspend him for remainder of season. Attendance and ratings way down."
Trump's eagerness to mix it up in the ring has perplexed presidential historians and aides to former presidents who said that while his pugnacious attitude toward athletes matches the rest of his political persona, Trump is needlessly creating political controversy in one of the few areas where his predecessors saw bipartisan opportunity.
It was Reagan, after all, who launched the tradition of inviting championship teams to the White House for a photo op in the East Room or on the South Lawn — and some hokey jokes from the fan in chief. In return for opening the White House doors, presidents have been rewarded with replica jerseys, signed balls and winning headlines in regional newspapers.
Reagan, a college football star who portrayed the Notre Dame player George Gipp on film, appreciated the connection sports stars had with the general public, said Robert Dallek, a presidential historian and author of "Ronald Reagan: The Politics of Symbolism."
"Sports requires discipline and evokes admiration from massive numbers of Americans," Dallek said. "To put oneself on the right side of a sports issue is to enjoy a degree of popularity any politician would crave."
By comparison, Trump "doesn't seem to care about having majority support. He's the only president in history who in his first year has never had 50 percent approval from the public. . . . It gives him some perverse satisfaction to be involved in combat. It lacks a kind of political sense."
Since taking office, Trump has not thrown out a ceremonial pitch or attended a professional sporting event, aside from a pair of professional golf tournaments in New Jersey, including the U.S. Women's Open championship at his golf course in Bedminster.
By comparison, George W. Bush, wearing a bulletproof vest under a wind-breaker, famously delivered a fastball over the plate in a stirring performance at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 30, 2001, before the third game of the World Series, aimed at demonstrating the United States would not be cowed in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Although Bush would go on to govern through two lengthy wars that politically fractured the nation, the moment still resonates as a high point and was celebrated in a 2015 ESPN mini-documentary, "First Pitch."
"When people say my name in certain places, it evokes a lot of emotion, some positive, some negative. This movie transcends politics," Bush told a reporter for the Grantland website after the movie's premiere in Dallas. "It really harks back to a moment when the country was united and was recovering."
Trump has used sports to exploit the nation's divisions on culture and race. His attacks on NFL players and the league's handling of the protests have resonated with his political base and have damaged television ratings.
His decision to disinvite the Warriors from visiting the White House after Curry publicly said he likely would not attend sparked a row with some of the league's most popular African American players — generating criticism that Trump's motivations have racial undertones.
"U bum," tweeted James, the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player and three-time champion now with the Cleveland Cavaliers. "Going to the White House was a great honor until you showed up!"
Ari Fleischer, who served as Bush's press secretary, said Trump's attacks on sports stars is of a piece with his general political strategy of attacking all sorts of once-revered cultural icons, including Gold Star military families and a former prisoner of war, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
"Most presidents wrap themselves in the flag and the patriotic glow and uplifting feeling that sports provides," Fleischer said. "Trump, instead of going with uplift, homes in on the divide."
A former Clinton aide said Trump has "turned a layup into a full-court shot while covered."
"If you are a White House image-maker, you had one pretty useful tool," said the aide, whose current employer did not authorize him to speak on the record. He recalled inviting members of Congress and political donors to the sports photo-ops. "It was one of the things where it is off the charts in terms of positive."
Fomer president Barack Obama used sports as an even bigger platform. He was a regular presence on ESPN, annually presenting his picks for the NCAA college basketball tournament brackets. Obama also conducted a town hall-style event on the sports network in October 2016 during which he discussed race relations.
ESPN contacted the White House in March to offer Trump a chance to do a selection bracket of his NCAA tournament picks, but he declined, a source close to the network said.
Josh Earnest, a White House press secretary for Obama, said the former president was a genuine sports fan who had fun meeting the athletes and participating in the events. He pointed to the time Obama, a Chicago native, threw out the first pitch at the Washington Nationals' opener in 2010 and surprised the home crowd by pulling out a black White Sox cap — drawing a mix of jeers and cheers.
Earnest contrasted that with Trump's relationship with pro wrestling, where, before becoming president, he participated in fictitious WWE pay-per-view story lines about personal feuds and rivalries settled through physical combat.
"That seems to be a sport Trump is a genuine fan of," Earnest said, "and one that fits his personality."