WASHINGTON — When the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots visit the White House Wednesday, Donald Trump will get the chance to put his showman’s imprint on an unofficial role that comes with the presidency — that of America’s sports fan in chief.
Like many of his predecessors, the president sees himself as an avid sports fan, with several uniquely Trump twists: He’s the best golfer to ever live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., according to rankings assembled by Golf Digest. He once owned a professional football team. His casinos hosted boxing matches, and Trump even joined in the body-slamming and other antics in the WWE wrestling ring.
Cozying up to Tom Brady and the Patriots Wednesday will give the president a brief reprieve from the turbulent news cycles of his administration.
“Throughout his career he’s liked to be a celebrity among other celebrities,” said John Sayle Watterson, the author of “The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the Presidency.” “If it happens to be a sports celebrity, all the better.”
Trump’s famously short attention span extends to sports, and he tends to consume games in quick bursts that focus on the highs and lows. It’s not unlike how he’s governed in the first 100 days, focusing intently on wins and losses but mostly eschewing the details — although as a team owner, he was not above meddling in on-field decisions when he owned the New Jersey Generals, a team in the now-defunct United States Football League.
As president, Trump has passed on the chance to throw out the first pitch for baseball’s Opening Day and did not fill out a March Madness bracket.
That sets him apart from his immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, who obsessed over the details, watched ESPN’s “Sports Center” at night, and once waited on Air Force One after the plane had landed at Joint Base Andrews so he could catch the end of Game Seven in the NBA finals. George W. Bush, too, set a high bar for presidential fandom as a onetime part owner of the Texas Rangers who displayed his collection of about 250 signed baseball cards.
Trump’s interest in athletics offers at least a partial look at how the 45th president unwinds. Even though sports tend to be more about work than pleasure, and nearly always have been connected in some way to the over-arching goal of advancing his brand, watching them is one of Trump’s few public leisure activities.
“He liked the competition, he enjoyed watching the players and interacting with everybody,” recalled Fred Bullard, the Florida developer who owned the United States Football League’s Jacksonville Bulls when Trump owned the New Jersey Generals, from 1983 to 1985.
Bullard said that Trump would fly down to watch the Generals play in Florida and the two would spend time together in the owner’s box. “It was a social visit, as well as cheering our teams. He and I are pretty much alike in that department.”
Bullard supported Trump’s presidential bid, and they still talk — but now the topic is politics, not football.
Trump also mixed politics with his friendships with Patriots owner Robert Kraft, coach Bill Belichick, and Brady. While campaigning for president in New Hampshire, he boasted of a coziness with the team’s leaders. (A handful of Patriots championship players have declared that, because they disagree with Trump’s policies and divisive brand of politics, they would not be joining Wednesday’s team visit.)
Trump’s annual Super Bowl parties at his Palm Beach golf club are legendary, where 300 to 400 people will gather to watch the game on huge screens, according to George Lombardi, a longtime Trump friend who is not related to the esteemed football coach. The vibe is light.
“It’s a long game,” explained Lombardi, who attended this year’s party. “Of course you talk to everyone during the game.”
It’s perhaps how most Americans consume sports, but Trump’s habits don’t impress some connoisseurs.
“You know how there is fake news? Trump is a fake sports fan,” said Mike Tollin, whose production company had exclusive rights to the United States Football League games. (Tollin later made a documentary about the downfall of the USFL, which Trump disliked.)
“His short attention span makes it difficult for him to really understand the ins and outs of a sport. And what goes on in between the plays. Or strategy. Or the nuance,” Tollin said.
But that’s not to say he was not paying attention: As the owner of the Generals, he noticed when the team’s television ratings were slipping and when one of his star players, who also happened to be one of his most expensive, was not making the big flashy plays Trump expected.
Herschel Walker, who reportedly scored a three-year, $5 million contract as a running back, complained to Trump that he wasn’t getting the ball enough during games. “I ranted and raved to our coach, Walt Michaels, but it wasn’t until I literally threatened to fire him that he got the point,” Trump wrote in his book “Art of The Deal.”
Trump also made his case in the press, calling the New York and New Jersey papers and sometimes using the pseudonym John Barron, to complain that Walker wasn’t getting the ball enough.
“It was accidental genius,” said Jeff Pearlman, who is writing an upcoming book about the USFL and is generally skeptical about Trump’s tenure as a team owner. But, he said, once Michaels made the change Trump suggested, the running back had “an amazing season.”
The players were at times baffled by their owner.
“I don’t always understand his motives,” former Boston College star Doug Flutie, who was Trump’s quarterback for a time, told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “I haven’t been able to figure the man out. But I have a lot of respect for him.”
Trump’s interest in boxing was also rooted in business — he hosted celebrity matches at his casinos. But he seems to have a deeper appreciation for that sport, which fits his combative personality.
Consider his description of a match between Mike Tyson and Buster Douglas, which combines the typical Trump bombast with some nuance.
“I have to say that Douglas fought a truly beautiful fight — the kind that brings to mind the term ‘sweet science,’ ” Trump wrote about the fight in his 1990 book “Surviving at the Top.” Trump credits Douglas for his style. “He didn’t brawl. He didn’t lose his cool and start throwing those big but ineffective roundhouse punches,” Trump wrote. “Rather, he continually set things up with his crisp left jab and followed through with his stinging right.”
Trump’s passion for sports like golf and boxing puts him in the company of other presidents who favored individual sports. That passion tended to predict their styles in the White House, according to Watterson, the author.
These include Woodrow Wilson, who played endless rounds of golf with his close confidants and had difficulty delegating big tasks to underlings. Another one was Jimmy Carter, he said, who enjoyed fly fishing and said his passion for it grew during his White House years.
“Carter was somebody who personified the individual approach to sports,” Watterson said. “Here was a guy who was a hands-on president, who famously wanted to sign off on who was using the White House tennis court.”
Trump excels at golf and is the best of the 16 most recent presidents who played the game, according to rankings compiled by Golf Digest. The magazine awarded Trump the top slot because of his 2.8 Handicap Index and the fact that he has won 19 club championships.
Obama, who is ranked by the magazine as the ninth best presidential golfer, would play in part to get outside and enjoy the fresh air, a side benefit that Trump might now also be enjoying.
“Just the open space,” said Eric Schultz, a former Obama spokesman, explaining why Obama liked the game. “The freedom to move around and not be smothered by staff and the entire entourage that follows you as president of the United States. You can have some time to move and roam around.”Annie Linskey can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.