For Trump, fighting with athletes is political sport

President Trump has criticized athletes, including NFL player Colin Kaepernick and Stephen Curry. His latest attacks targeted LaVall Ball and Marshawn Lynch. (Elyse Samuels/The Washington Post)

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…

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