It took college football — a famously federalist sport played all across the country with different rules and regulations, different regional customs and different people in charge with different priorities — more than 100 years of existence to finally get with the rest of the world and create a united, definitive national championship. It wasn’t until 2014 that the allure of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of sweet television money willed the College Football Playoff into existence. It should perhaps not be surprising then, amid a surge in unemployment and an uptick in political polarization, that the sport regressed immediately back to its isolationist roots: The unification shattered like it never existed at all.
It should perhaps not be surprising that the sport regressed immediately back to its isolationist roots.
This week, the Big Ten and the Pac-12 conferences voted to cancel their fall sports seasons. (Officially, they’re “postponing” their fall seasons to spring, but they have no concrete plans to make that happen and no serious person believes a spring season will exist.) Those are two of the five major conferences that make up the College Football Playoff. Losing 40 percent of the teams in a playoff would seem to destroy the idea of playing such a matter.
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But three of the conferences are still planning on having their unpaid college students play a violent collision-based sport amidst the greatest public health crisis in 100 years of American history. Why, you ask? As usual: Politics, and of course President Donald Trump, are right there in the middle of it.
The irony of Trump and his minions suddenly pressuring colleges to preserve the fall college football season is that we’re in this mess because of how poorly the president handled the pandemic. But — because everything is always politicized when Trump sticks his beak in, from schools reopening to what kind of beans to buy — it is definitely worth noting who, exactly, Trump is putting pressure on. Or, more specifically, where.
The conferences that canceled their seasons this week are the Big Ten and Pac-12, and their schools are primarily made up of Democratic states with Democratic governors: Illinois, California, Oregon, Washington, spreading all the way to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Colorado. There’s a Nebraska, Iowa and Utah university in there too — and it’s worth noting that Nebraska momentarily threatened to play football without the Big Ten — but the crossover between states that were mostly careful with their COVID-19 reopening and states where football has been canceled is undeniably substantial.
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Many assumed the Big 12, ACC and SEC would follow the example of the Pac-12 and Big Ten in canceling, but while that still could happen, the pressure from Trump, as well as many lawmakers, coaches, players and athletic administrators, caused them to pause. Or, put another way, it caused the conferences to put aside the health of the young men they control in order to concentrate on what was, first and foremost, best for short-term personal economic good. Which sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?
The SEC, ACC and Big 12 (which was widely considered the “swing state” when it came to playing — a conference that could have pulled the other conferences in either direction) certainly had plenty of pressure. (Their schools exist primarily in Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.) College football is so powerful in this geographic area that two of governors, Mississippi’s Tate Reeves and Georgia’s Brian Kemp, explicitly listed “having college football” as a reason for their citizens to wear a mask. It is telling that neither man could come up with a more alarming prospect to their voters than an autumn without college athletics.
On Monday, Trump tweeted that "the student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be canceled." But the decision to keep unpaid college athletes still sweating and breathing heavily in locker rooms together shouldn’t be seen as a sign of generosity. Nor is it an example of stalwart stiff upper-lip stay-the-course-ness. Think of it more as aligned with states reopening public schools. The state of Georgia is seeing a consistent increase in positive coronavirus cases, but Kemp is encouraging schools to plunge ahead and stay open for in-person schooling anyway … as is the University of Georgia itself.
Like states’ early, reckless reopenings of their economies, college football’s plan — such that it is a plan — is unlikely to work. Just as several schools have already shut down because of coronavirus outbreaks, the postponement or cancellation of the last three conferences seems inevitable. The number of issues that must be resolved — about player safety, about scheduling, about universal protocols, about just about every aspect of all of this, actually — are massive. And it’s also worth wondering what kind of season this would be anyway, with just three conferences playing. (Is there a College Football Playoff? Will anyone really consider a team that wins it a true champion?) And that’s if you can even get the season started. Once that happens, the issues MLB is already facing pop up: A St. Louis Cardinals-like outbreak would basically shut down the entire enterprise. And these are college students. An outbreak is inevitable.
The push to play college football this fall ignores science, ignores the facts on the ground and ignores any nuance in every aspect of how the business of college football is constructed. It is a testament to the kind of selfish thinking that has made America an international joke. No wonder Trump climbed on board. And like the openings of the economy and in-person schooling, this isn’t going to work either.