Trump spikes political football with return of Big Ten season

President Trump and Republicans are celebrating the planned resumption of Big Ten football, turning the decision to start the season amid COVID-19 into a political football.

The Big Ten Conference announced Wednesday that games will begin the weekend of Oct. 23 after a unanimous vote from school presidents and chancellors. Players will be tested daily for COVID-19, and any athletes who test positive must remain out of competition for 21 days.

The decision had already been politicized to a large extent. Trump has repeatedly chastised states and universities for not allowing in-person learning and football to commence, Republican lawmakers have called for the conference to resume play and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden blamed Trump for the absence of football in a campaign ad last month.

The president took a victory lap Wednesday, tweeting that it was his “great honor to have helped!!!”

The Trump campaign issued a lengthy statement declaring Big Ten football was returning “thanks in no small part to the leadership of President Trump.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) was among the GOP senators from states with schools in the Big Ten who thanked Trump for his focus on the conference.

It’s unclear what role, if any, Trump played in the Big Ten’s decision. Trump was not mentioned in the Big Ten’s announcement, and league officials indicated in a news conference that starting the season was a result of advances in coronavirus testing and tracing capabilities.

The conference also faced pressure from players and coaches to resume play and was grappling with lost revenue while some other leagues pressed on with their seasons.

But Trump had been a vocal proponent of bringing back football.

He spoke with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren on Sept. 1 to discuss a possible resumption of games, and he mentioned the conference frequently in interviews and at news conferences when discussing the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a productive call, and I’m always interested in who’s willing to help regardless of the level that they can help in,” Warren said Wednesday of his conversation with Trump. “So, had a good conversation and a very respectful conversation, and I’m glad to be sitting here today looking forward to kicking off football on Oct. 23-24.”

A senior administration official told reporters on a background call that the White House held hundreds of additional calls with athletic directors, players, parents, coaches and conference officials in the last 15 days, and that the administration offered resources to facilitate the resumption of play.

The senior official would not say if the Big Ten accepted those resources and only cited Trump’s call with Warren and use of the bully pulpit when asked what tangible action the president took.

Trump’s fixation on the conference is a nod to the electoral importance of its members: Schools in battleground states Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio all compete in the Big Ten. By contrast, Trump has been noticeably silent about the absence of football in the Pac-12 Conference, which hosts schools from California, Washington and Oregon, among other states.

The president won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in 2016 by a combined total of roughly 80,000 votes. He has consistently trailed in polls in Michigan, and a Wisconsin poll released late Tuesday shows him trailing Biden by 6 percentage points. The gap is narrower in Pennsylvania, where a CNBC poll earlier this month showed Biden leading by 4 points.

“The president wants everybody to reopen,” the senior official said. “This is not just a matter of the Big Ten or the PAC-12 or the Mountain West. He is willing to provide resources to anybody that is reconsidering playing football.”

The Biden campaign released an ad in late August highlighting the altered sports landscape, blaming it on Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. The ad featured images of empty stadiums and intoned that  “Trump put America on the sidelines.”

Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee, said the resumption of Big Ten football, and football in general, could provide a short-term boost for the president because it takes away a talking point from Democrats.

“So having that removed is a benefit, but we should be careful not to overrate what this means politically,” Heye added, noting that fans will not be able to attend games in person and businesses in college towns may still struggle amid the pandemic.

The Big Ten announced on Aug. 11 that the football season would be postponed until the spring due to the pandemic. The decision and explanation caused frustration among many players, parents and coaches within the league, including some who questioned why the conference did not wait to see if it was possible to just push the season until later in the fall.

In the time since the initial delay, the pandemic has not significantly improved in the U.S. The country is still reporting thousands of new infections each day and hundreds of deaths from the virus, and a handful of states have seen rising positivity rates. The U.S. leads the world in reported infections and deaths.

Conference officials pointed to advances in rapid testing as a key to their reversal.

“Our ability to test consistently and uniformly amongst the conference and to provide that was really important, and I think we have been very comfortable with the idea that we will be able to provide daily rapid testing that will give us great surveillance of our student-athletes,” Jim Borchers, team physician for Ohio State University’s football team, said in a virtual news conference.

Concerns remain about the health of the players. A number of college football games have already been postponed in other conferences due to positive tests, and Louisiana State University coach Ed Orgeron said Tuesday he suspects most of his team has already had COVID-19.

In the Big Ten, the University of Wisconsin and Penn State University recently paused workouts for teams due to positive tests.

“The @bigten shows once again how college athletics always employs situational ethics,” tweeted Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for the Clinton White House and the NFL. “I don’t know if the kids should play or not. But nothing has changed on the data, it’s actually gotten worse, than when they made the original decision. So why change?”

Tags Big Ten Charles Grassley Chuck Grassley College football Coronavirus Donald Trump Joe Biden Pandemic
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