Could sport swing the election? Why Trump wants college football to return

Bryan Armen Graham
·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

Donald Trump claimed a decisive victory for himself on Wednesday when the Big Ten conference announced it will move forward with a college football season beginning in late October. The reversal came less than five weeks after the league’s 14 presidents and chancellors voted to postpone all fall sports until at least the spring over safety concerns amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Related: Empty stands and virtual bands: college football in the time of coronavirus

“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK,” the US president crowed. “All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”

For more than a month Trump was performatively dogged in his campaign to resuscitate the Big Ten, the Midwest-rooted conference that includes some of the most popular teams in the collegiate ranks, such as Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. And it doesn’t take Karl Rove to figure out why this particular collection of schools in this particular region was handpicked as a political football ahead of the November election.

How did this get so politicized?

The promise of a return to normalcy has been central to Trump’s reelection pitch from the earliest days of the pandemic, so it’s no surprise that he would seize on America’s second most popular sport – a signpost of autumn and a pastime regarded as a vanguard of conservative values – during the run-up to his showdown with Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

Four years ago, Trump was able to win the electoral college and the White House despite receiving nearly 3m fewer votes by toppling the so-called blue wall of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – none of which had gone Republican in nearly three decades – by a combined total of fewer than 80,000 votes (or 0.06% of 137m votes cast). All three of those crucially important battleground states fall squarely inside the Big Ten’s geographical footprint, as do Minnesota, Iowa and Ohio, which also figure into scenarios that could swing the election.

Trump’s breathless lobbying for Big Ten football on Twitter and at his rallies makes a lot more sense after a quick glance at the most recent public polling, which finds him trailing Biden in Michigan (by 7.5%), Pennsylvania (4.8%) and Wisconsin (6.8%). Desperate for a boost in states he can’t afford to surrender, the old New Jersey Generals owner has dialed up a Hail Mary.

While America’s money-spinning sports-industrial complex is almost exclusively centered around major cities, many of the country’s most storied college football programs are based in smaller towns and cities that rely heavily on football weekends for their livelihoods, among them Big Ten strongholds Madison, Wisconsin (population: 259,680), Ann Arbor, Michigan (119,980), and State College, Pennsylvania (42,352).

Keenly aware of college football’s vital cultural and economic importance in these regions, Biden’s campaign has met Trump on his chosen ground. Not long after the conference’s presidents’ council voted to postpone, Biden released an ad filled with visuals of empty Big Ten stadiums, drawing an unmistakable line between Trump’s response to the pandemic and a fall without football.

“Trump put America on the sidelines,” reads the tagline. “Let’s get back in the game.”

What’s changed since last month?

Back in August, the Big Ten’s council of presidents and chancellors voted 11-3 to postpone the season, with Ohio State, Iowa and Nebraska dissenting. On Tuesday, the decision to move forward was unanimous.

Northwestern University president Morton Schapiro, chairman of the presidents’ council, insisted the change of course had nothing to do with the mounting pressure from state and local politicians, student-athletes, coaches and Trump himself, but from significant improvements in the understanding of the virus, the availability of rapid-testing programs and access to comprehensive cardiac MRI testing to allay concerns over myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart that has been found at a high rate in recovered coronavirus patients.

“The medical advice I relied on when I voted five weeks ago said there was virtually no chance that we could do it safely,” Schapiro said Wednesday during a virtual press briefing. “We weren’t going to have the testing and all the safety protocols.”

The “stringent medical protocols” to be implemented include daily antigen tests for all athletes, coaches, trainers and other individuals that are on the field for all practices and games. Any student-athletes who test positive must remain out of competition for a minimum of 21 days.

“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits, and it wasn’t about what everybody else is doing,” Schapiro said. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts, as that evolved over the course of weeks.”

What is the left saying?

This is a bad idea!

Critics point to the stark reality of a pandemic that as of Thursday has surpassed 6.6m confirmed cases and claimed more than 196,000 lives in the United States. And the full-contact nature of football on every play has prompted Dr Anthony Fauci, the US’s top infectious disease expert, to describe the sport as a “perfect setup” for spreading Covid-19.

“This is a respiratory virus, so it’s going to be spread by shedding [the] virus,” Fauci told NBC in May. “If there is an infected football player on the field – a middle linebacker, a tackle, whoever it is it – as soon as they hit the next guy, the chances are that they will be shedding virus all over that person.”

There’s also the moral question of whether thousands of daily tests for college football players, and not more vulnerable sectors of the population, is prioritizing a billion-dollar enterprise over the public health.

What is the right saying?

Pandemic or Dem-panic?

Many conservative pundits have decried the Big Ten’s decision as a concerted effort to make Trump look bad in regions where college football is crucial to the economy. Charlie Kirk, the right-wing activist and Turning Point USA founder, described it as “disgusting and pathetic”.

Kevin Warren, the Big Ten’s first-year commissioner who’s been in over his head almost from the start, has been branded a left-wing activist thanks to a Yahoo Sports article from June that described his plans for a conference-wide voter registration initiative. Same for the presidents and chancellors, whose every previous statement critical of Trump has been dredged up as evidence of a conspiracy against the president.

There’s also been a familiar refrain, common among those who express doubts about Covid-19’s gravity, regarding acceptable risks. “Life is about tradeoffs,” Nebraska senator Ben Sasse wrote in August. “But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18-to-22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”

Even more to the point was Hall of Fame coach Lou Holtz, classically understated, in a memorable Fox News hit: “Let’s move on with our life! When they stormed Normandy, they knew there were going to be casualties.”

What comes next?

The daily testing won’t begin until 30 September, but all teams can start practicing “immediately”, according to Wisconsin athletics director Barry Alvarez.

All 14 schools will play eight regular-season contests in eight weeks – four home, four away – starting the weekend of 23-24 October following a schedule that will be finalized this week. The conference championship game between the top two teams from each seven-team division has been slated for 19 December in Indianapolis.

But the biggest contest of all will be settled a few weeks earlier.