The formal announcement of the Big Ten once again playing football this fall brings the return of the sport as a presidential election talking point for Donald Trump.
With the election looming in early November, the key swath of swing states where the election is expected to be decided are located in the Big Ten’s footprint. And for the past month, Trump has pushed and prodded the Big Ten to change its stance on playing football this fall, including having a conversation with commissioner Kevin Warren.
On Twitter on Wednesday morning, Trump cast himself as the hero in the Big Ten’s return: “It is my great honor to have helped!!!” He added that it was “great news” that the sport was returning.
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!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 16, 2020
Even as recently as Tuesday night, Trump told ABC News: “I’m pushing very hard for Big Ten, I want to see Big Ten open — let the football games — let them play sports.”
Even with improper syntax, Trump’s point is clear. It was easy to see that the return of the Big Ten is going to become a political talking point again, as Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania all loom as key battleground states for Trump and challenger Joe Biden.
“It’ll certainly be a talking point, but I don’t think it’ll be a tipping point,” said Kent Hance, a former congressman from Texas and ex-chancellor at Texas Tech who practices law with Hance Scarborough, an Austin-Washington D.C. law and lobbying firm. “But if the election is close enough, anything and everything is a tipping point.
On Sept. 1, Trump held a phone call with Warren. They spoke about the potential availability of daily rapid testing. A few days earlier, he tweeted: “Disgraceful that Big Ten is not playing football. Let them PLAY!” Two weeks before that, Trump said in a radio interview that it would be “tragic” if the conference didn’t play this season.
The fact that the Big Ten didn’t use the federal government to secure testing likely won’t sway Trump from declaring political victory with the Big Ten’s return to play.
“The Camp David Accords didn’t help Jimmy Carter and the fall of the Berlin Wall didn’t help George H. W. Bush,” said James Carville, a longtime political strategist and ardent college football fan. “I don’t think Big Ten football is really going to help Trump. I’m sure Trump will try and take credit for it, but the election is going to be about more than that.”
The league initially announced on Aug. 11 that it was postponing the fall season because of health concerns in the wake of COVID-19. Eight days after that, Warren insisted in a statement that the decision “will not be revisited.” That formally got reversed on Wednesday, with the league planning to start Oct. 24 and adding sophisticated medical protocols that include daily rapid testing.
Less than a month after the initial decision, the confluence of medical advancements amid intense fan, financial and political pressure led to the league reversing its decision.
The league joins the ACC, Big 12 and SEC in either playing or planning to play this fall. The Pac-12 is the only major conference that doesn’t intend to play. (The Mountain West and MAC also are sitting out the fall and exploring dates in the spring.)
The Big Ten’s decision had already emerged in the political sphere. Biden has commercials in the Big Ten footprint that blame Trump’s lack of a coherent response to COVID-19 for the sport being postponed. According to the Associated Press, the ads said, “Trump put America on the sidelines. Let’s get back in the game.”
In a political rally in Michigan last week, Trump encouraged opening up the country and playing football. “We want to see Big Ten football,” Trump said, according to The New York Times. “But people are working very, very hard to get Big Ten football back and I’m pushing it, and it will be a great thing for our country and players.”
That type of back and forth will likely continue until the election.
“A major theme of President Trump’s re-election campaign has been that he is trying to get the country back to ‘normal’ — or some semblance of it — while Joe Biden and other Democrats allegedly want to shut it down,” said Christopher Devine, a professor of political science at the University of Dayton. “The return of Big Ten football would play into President Trump’s narrative. He can argue that the Big Ten is following his lead by re-opening while positioning himself — amid the controversy sure to result from this decision — as the champion of Big Ten football and its fans throughout the Midwest.”
The only certainty is that the return of Big Ten football will ramp up the rhetoric on both sides.
“What’s happening now is everyone has an angle to everything,” Carville said. “I’m sure [Trump will] blabber about it, but there’s a lot of Democrats that play college football.”
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