The Boston Red Sox owner Tom Werner says he traveled to the White House on Thursday with an “apolitical” agenda in mind. It was neither a “red day” nor a “blue day,” he would stress later that afternoon to reporters—just a “great day” for honoring his franchise’s World Series victory last fall. “To a great degree possible,” Werner said, “people watch sports as a way to get away from their problems.”
The same might be said for presidents as they play host to such innocuous celebrations, at least historically. The chance to fete some of the nation’s finest athletes, to banter with the players, to awe them with a quick spin around the Oval Office—it’s about as good a getaway from the daily grind of politics as a president could hope for. In February 1987, Ronald Reagan tabled questions about the Iran-Contra affair to celebrate the recent Super Bowl victory of the New York Giants, the crowd cheering as the linebacker Harry Carson dumped a cooler full of popcorn on Reagan’s head. In May 2016, Barack Obama presumably enjoyed a breather from the ongoing election to name his successor by honoring the UConn women’s basketball team, whose players gifted him with an engraved wooden chair and invited him to join their Xbox 360 Rock Band group.
But in the Donald Trump era, not even sports receptions are immune to controversy—and Thursday was no exception.