Amid the coronavirus pandemic, many political concerns have come to the forefront of Americans’ minds. What is not expected, however, is one of these issues being college football. As the election approaches, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have voiced their opinions on the status of this season.
Back in mid-August, both the Big Ten Conference and the Pac-12 Conference made the decision to cancel their 2020 seasons in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting students, players and surrounding communities. For Division I athletics, a multibillion-dollar industry, the choice to cancel competition did not come without financial burdens to the universities. Many of these institutions rely on their athletic programs to attract publicity, new students and alumni donations.
Along with this financial loss, many Americans see college football as a cultural tradition with a great deal of sentimental value. Fans across the country have been advocating for football to go forward despite the clear danger posed by the virus. One might expect the opposition to the Big Ten and Pac-12’s initial decisions to have come largely from dedicated coaches and fans — which it did — but backlash from the current United States president was certainly unexpected.
Unlike coaches and fans, Trump did not demand college football’s return for personal reasons, like the loss of a community or family tradition, and instead chose to politicize the issue. According to NBC News, Trump utilized college football as an example of unnecessary economic decline during the pandemic, emphasizing that all businesses should remain open during the pandemic despite the advice of medical experts, who advise against public gatherings. Trump made a personal call to Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren and, according to Warren, “made it very clear that he would help in any way that he possibly could to help us return to competition,” he said in a press conference.
It is no coincidence that the Trump administration decided to take this stance with a focus on the Big Ten, a conference that is centered in many Midwestern and swing states. Trump is continuing to politicize the coronavirus, and his insistence that college football must go on plays right into his repeated downplaying of the pandemic. In their discourse surrounding college football, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have zeroed in on these battleground areas in an attempt to rally conservative supporters and sway undecided voters. At the same time, they overlooked the Pac-12, which houses teams in more traditionally Democratic-voting states.
While the Trump administration has consistently urged the Big Ten to play, offering them federal aid, the Biden campaign has taken an opposing stance, circulating a video of empty stadiums on social media with a caption stating that Trump had “put America on the sidelines” with his handling of COVID-19.
On Sept. 16, the Big Ten schools unanimously reversed their August decision and decided to go forward with competition after discussion with conference presidents and medical officials. Since August, the league has secured daily testing and more frequent medical screenings, which conference officials pointed to as a deciding factor for returning to play. However, the presence of the virus at Big Ten universities has been pervasive, with colleges in the conference together accounting for thousands of cases. Nonetheless, university and athletic officials claim to be better positioned to handle the virus than they were in August, despite Warren’s earlier assertion that the decision would “not be revisited.”
The reversal was abrupt and shocking to many, so its true origins have been largely speculated. Trump has attempted on multiple occasions to take credit for the shift, tweeting things like “great honor to have helped!!!” He kept this attitude during the most recent presidential debate in Cleveland, declaring, “It was me [who brought about the return to play], and I’m very happy to do it and the people of Ohio are very proud of me.”
Ultimately, whether the Big Ten would play this season depended not on partisan politics, but on the universities themselves. As Morton Schapiro, president at Northwestern University and Big Ten chairman, explained, the decision to return to play “wasn’t about political pressure; it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits and it wasn’t about what everyone else is doing.”
The pandemic and this year as a whole have been a reflective period for many people, with heightened discussions of race relations, workers’ rights, healthcare and more. In light of this, it seems odd that college football has been such a prominent topic of discussion for politicians. The public will never know for sure which factors were most persuasive in the Big Ten’s decision, or what ultimately led to the NCAA’s position. What can be addressed for certain, however, is the use of sports as a political maneuver. We see our president focusing on something that seems insignificant in light of the current state of our nation, and it distracts from the more pressing issues at hand. At the same time, we are reminded that sports are not only entertainment, but also occupy a central role in the public eye.