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Poll: Americans divided over whether college football should be returning

The Big Ten Conference announced last week that it plans to play games starting next month.
Image: PlayStation Fiesta Bowl - LSU v Central Florida
LSU Tigers fans cheer with the LSU mascot during the first half of the Fiesta Bowl between LSU and the University of Central Florida at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 1, 2019.Norm Hall / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Americans are divided over whether college football players should be allowed to play this fall during the coronavirus pandemic, even as a clear majority believe the athletes are putting themselves at a greater risk of contracting the virus by playing.

Forty-nine percent of adults said college football players should be allowed to play this fall, compared to 48 percent who said they shouldn't, according to new results from the NBC News|SurveyMonkey Weekly Tracking Poll.

There are significant differences based on political leanings — almost three-quarters of Republicans and those who lean Republican support players' returning to play, while 7 in 10 Democrats and those who lean Democratic don't. Independents are split on the issue — 47 percent support allowing college football players to return to play, while 51 percent don't.

There's more agreement that playing does put players at additional risk of contracting the coronavirus — 61 percent of adults say so, compared to 36 percent who don't believe playing is an additional risk. That viewpoint is again heavily swayed by differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Sixty-three percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say playing in the fall isn't an additional risk, a sentiment shared by just 14 percent of Democrats and those who lean Democratic. While 36 percent of Republicans and those who lean Republican say playing college football adds coronavirus risk for players, 85 percent of Democrats say it does.

Overall, 70 percent of adults say they wouldn't attend a game this fall if given the opportunity — a perspective shared by a slim majority of Republicans and those who lean Republican, as well as a significant majority of independents, Democrats and those who lean Democratic.

The results come as the NFL rounds the corner into its third week and as the Big Ten plans to return to play in October.

Three prominent college football conferences — the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference — have either started playing this month or plan to before the end of September. The Big Ten and the Pac-12 conferences postponed their seasons because of the virus.

But last week, the Big Ten reversed course, releasing new testing and safety protocols that college presidents say will help keep student-athletes safe. The Big Ten will start playing the weekend of Oct. 23.

The decision makes the Pac-12 the only one of college football's top five conferences with no current plans to return this fall.

President Donald Trump has been a vocal proponent of football's return — ahead of the Big Ten's decision to return to play, Trump repeatedly tweeted calling on the conference to restart games.

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Last month, former Vice President Joe Biden's campaign made a video showing empty Big Ten stadiums while blaming Trump for putting "America on the sidelines."

It hasn't been smooth sailing for those teams that have returned to the field — some games have been postponed, and others have gone on with dozens of athletes either sick or quarantining after possible exposures.

LSU football coach Ed Orgeron, whose team won last year's national championship, said last week that "most of our players have caught" Covid-19.

Data come from a set of SurveyMonkey online polls conducted Sept. 14-20, 2020, among a national sample of 36,454 adults in the U.S. Respondents were selected from the more than 2 million people who take surveys on the SurveyMonkey platform each day. The modeled error estimate for this survey is plus or minus 1.0 percentage points. Data have been weighted for age, race, sex, education and geography using the Census Bureau's American Community Survey to reflect the demographic composition of the United States ages 18 and over.