On the Scoreboard: The Home Team, the Visitors and Trump – The New York Times

WASHINGTON — When President Trump attended Game 5 of the World Series in the nation’s capital, chants of “lock him up” rang out as booing rose from the depth of Nationals Park. When the president attended an Ultimate Fighting Championship bout at Madison Square Garden, supporters and critics spent days fighting over the exact proportion of boos to applause he drew.

So when Mr. Trump decided to attend Saturday’s football game between the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University in the more politically friendly territory of Tuscaloosa, Ala., several aides and allies saw it as a way for him to elicit a more unequivocal show of support during a period that has kept the White House in a defensive crouch.

In Alabama, the president received exactly that. When he was introduced and shown on the giant screens, the red-clad crowd responded with rousing cheers as a smiling Mr. Trump waved and clapped and drank in the support. There were some boos as well, but the cheers dominated and some fans chanted, “U-S-A, U-S-A!”

Mr. Trump could hardly have found a bigger sports spectacle than Saturday’s matchup, an event that all but shut down the city of Tuscaloosa. More than 100,000 fans poured into Bryant-Denny Stadium hours before kickoff. Those who arrived early enjoyed members of the United States Special Operations Command parachute team dropping from the sky to land around the 50-yard line.

The president watched from a box near midfield; he was accompanied by the Alabama representatives Robert B. Aderholt and Bradley Byrne, who is challenging Jeff Sessions, Mr. Trump’s former attorney general, for Mr. Sessions’s former Senate seat. A few blocks from the stadium, opponents gathered along with a “baby Trump” balloon. One of the main fraternity houses flew a handmade “Trump 2020” banner.

The appearances of presidents at sporting events have long fascinated the public. But with emotions high over impeachment, the president’s recent pastime as a sports enthusiast, and the responses of different audiences, has become a national political preoccupation — a debate that roiled the University of Alabama this week when students were warned against “disruptive” conduct at the game. The university later clarified that students were free to express themselves.

And if fans can’t escape the expectation to publicly declare (or suppress) their political views, athletes face even more pressure to confirm or deny them.

Amid this tense environment, the president gets to relax.

Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Trump’s eldest son, said in an interview that his father had brought to the White House a love of sports that traces back to his childhood: “That’s his happy place where he still gets to be the boy from Queens,” the younger Mr. Trump said.

That happy place now exists in the heated political confines Mr. Trump has drawn for himself. Since the beginning of his presidency, he has prompted emotional culture-war debates, including one over black National Football League players kneeling for the national anthem in protest of police brutality.

“They’re ruining the game,” Mr. Trump told a rally crowd in Alabama in 2017, describing the players’ protests as “a total disrespect of our heritage,” and urging team owners to fire them.

Even in the White House, professional sports has never been far away. Mr. Trump has outpaced other modern presidents in his recognition of athletes who like him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When he bestowed one in September on the former basketball player Jerry West, he reflected on Mr. West’s home state of West Virginia and his own 2016 election victory.

“I shouldn’t say this,” Mr. Trump said, “but I won it by 43 points.”

On Monday, several players for the Washington Nationals made political statements when they visited the White House to celebrate their World Series win. Kurt Suzuki, the team’s catcher, donned a “Make America Great Again” hat and was embraced by the president, who reacted ecstatically to the public gesture of support. When video surfaced on Twitter of the pitcher Stephen Strasburg appearing to avoid shaking Mr. Trump’s hand, the athlete retorted with one of the president’s favorite insults: “#FakeNews.” Several other players skipped the visit, but only one, Sean Doolittle, publicly attributed his decision to his antipathy for the president.

Mr. Trump and his supporters have been more sensitive to his reception at events on the road. Mr. Trump’s World Series appearance was internally seen as the sort of dutiful presidential event he should attend. Trump allies said little about the booing at Nationals Park compared with the reception he received at the New York City bout, which was expected to be more friendly territory: He has been interested in the sport for years. But when Mr. Trump made a split-second decision to go less than two weeks before the event, even the U.F.C. president, Dana White, believed it was short notice.

“We had dinner last Thursday at the White House, and he said ‘I’m coming. I’m coming to New York,’” Mr. White told reporters in recent days. “And I was like ‘Oh, my God! That’s going to be a rough one! Why don’t we do Vegas on the 14th? And New York was the only one that he could do, so he came tonight.”

In the end, the social media fight over whether Mr. Trump had drawn more boos than applause at the event went on much longer than the actual U.F.C. match. The president plays close attention to news coverage of how he is received at those events. Mr. Trump’s elder sons, Eric and Donald Trump Jr., quickly jumped in to attack the president’s critics who posted video suggesting that he had been booed en masse. Other footage, including that shared by the Trumps, showed the crowd cheering.

Both the substance of the fight — and what it meant that a sitting president attended a sport known for its brutal violence — was overshadowed.

“The whole debate ended up becoming whether he was booed or cheered,” Timothy L. O’Brien, who wrote a biography of Mr. Trump, said in an interview. “The president is sanctioning an event like that by virtue of the fact that he has supported it in his business, and he continues to support it as a president.”

Mr. Trump, who has logged hundreds of games of golf as president, grew up playing sports. In the book “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” the author Curt Smith wrote that Mr. Trump had been scouted by at least two professional baseball teams.

“I was supposed to be a professional baseball player,” Mr. Trump said during an interview with MTV in 2010. “Fortunately, I decided to go into real estate instead. I played first base and I also played catcher. I was a good hitter. I just had a good time.”

Eventually, Mr. Trump grew more interested in owning teams than becoming a professional athlete. In the 1980s, he backed the New Jersey Generals, a franchise of the short-lived United States Football League, with ambitions to eventually own a team in the National Football League. That dream never materialized.

As a casino owner in Atlantic City, he hosted boxing and mixed martial arts matches, advised the boxer Mike Tyson and once signed on as a supporter of Affliction, a short-lived challenger to U.F.C.

“I asked one of them, ‘How long would I last?’” Mr. Trump said in 2008 at an Affliction news conference. “You know, I’m tough. We’re all tough.”

Peter Baker contributed reporting from Tuscaloosa, Ala.