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The Political Football of Political Football

North Dakota State presents Trump with a custom jersey last year at the White House.
North Dakota State presents Trump with a custom jersey last year at the White House.
Photo: Getty

After initially deciding to sit this season out due to a deadly virus, last week the Big Ten reversed course.

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On the face of it, this doesn’t look like a medical decision. There isn’t some magical disappearance of the virus in Big Ten states like Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. There is no vaccine or cure for the coronavirus. Big Ten athletes aren’t, all of a sudden, immune from contracting myocarditis. College campuses are actually hotbeds of infection, and some of the linemen on an average Division I team definitely meet the criteria for high risk, based on weight alone.

Certainly some bubbles have been really effective at preventing transmission, but the whole point of the fictive student-athlete designation is to wring labor out of college players by showing that they are just kids who happen to play sports when they aren’t in class.

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If you are traveling each week to swap sweat with a few dozen strangers, there is no bubble. But, nonetheless, the Big Ten will get back to playing football — and it’s always football — starting in October. Even when some schools, like Rutgers, don’t even have their actual students on campus due to health concerns.

As The Athletic’s college sports writer Nicole Auerbach tweeted: “Northwestern president Morton Schapiro: ‘It wasn’t about political pressure. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about lawsuits. It wasn’t about doing what everybody else was doing. It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts.’”

This was an assertion immediately undermined by Trump, who did a victory lap that included tweets and a behind-the-scenes press call to explain his involvement. He was characteristically understated.

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“Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. 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!!!” he tweeted.

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Trump does not stick to politics. And football isn’t just any sport when it comes to the national interest.

“There’s a long history of American presidents being interested in football,” said Arizona State professor and sports historian Victoria Jackson. “There’s this myth around the game; military leaders, business leaders, political leaders are grown on football fields.”

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Dwight D. Eisenhower played for Army. Gerald Ford was a center at Michigan. Even Richard M. Nixon was rumored to have called a play for Washington when George Allen coached there.

President Barack Obama had a 2014 summit on concussions in sports. Theodore Roosevelt famously had a hand in “saving” college football in 1905, when approximately 45 players had died from injuries in the previous five years. In addition to Roosevelt, Princeton President Woodrow Wilson, who would go on to be the 28th U.S. president, helped guide the process. There was a growing movement to abolish football, and a committee implemented rules changes that included the forward pass.

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The rest is history.

“A president can get everyone around the table and say, is there a path for this to happen?” said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio State University College of Business.

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And yet, there isn’t an indication that Trump was a mediator in this case. He’s been a bully and a taskmaster, tweeting that sports must be brought back, starting with a conference call with pro-league commissioners in April to get work on a way to bring back sports. He later called Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren toward that same end.

“I think the president of the United States could get everyone to agree on a consistent message,” Ridpath said. “But I just see this trend as him focusing on himself.”

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Trump doesn’t need these teams to get to January, but if fans in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin go to the polls as their favorite teams are scrimmaging nearby, signaling the normal we are just not back to, that’s likely good enough.

“If he were far ahead in the polls I don’t think he’d be doing this,” Ridpath said.

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Jackson said U.S. presidents are not alone in using sports to draw support. She noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin put a tremendous effort into hosting the 2014 Sochi Olympics and 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“Putin’s popularity was waning at home,” Jackson said.

The Olympics, in particular, were successful in galvanizing local support for the leader according to polling done before and after the Games.

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“The Opening Ceremony, the doping scheme, that wasn’t about getting Russia’s international profile up,” said Jackson. “it was about domestic politics.”

Meanwhile, a trailing Trump looks to boost his chances at a second term before the Nov. 3 election. To that end, he has urged professional sports to get fans in the stands and players on the practice field — not because the science says these things are safe, but in spite of it.

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He’s even taken a page from the NFL, which had a rheumatologist head up the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury committee, in adding radiologist Dr. Scott Atlas to the coronavirus task force. Atlas is a doctor who agrees with Trump, even though he is outside of his area of technical expertise.

Sure, things could be fine with college campuses getting ready to see teams play on Saturday. Or the Big Ten could just take a gander at the University of Alabama, which has over 2,300 cases of the virus since getting back to campus.

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Alabama plays at Missouri on Saturday. There could be up to 15,600 fans in the stands.

Everything might be fine. Everyone who catches the virus, including the 51 Alabama faculty and staff members, could be out with a cough and be back on campus in a week. Except that we have roughly 200,000 dead from the virus and little to no respect for the damage it is doing long-term in some, even the young.

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But get those fans back in the stands, says a President with an election approaching. It’s a maddening amount of cognitive dissonance.

“We overvalue sports in our society and he’s able to bring back that escape,” Ridpath said.

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