Is President Trump committed to helping Big Ten play football in fall?
Just like every other occasion President Trump has poked his nose into sports during the past four years, his motivations for prodding the Big Ten into playing football this fall are not hard to figure out.
Facing a tough campaign this fall in which Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin are crucial to his prospects of being re-elected, Trump sought out Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren for a phone call Tuesday for one simple reason: It’s a win-win for him politically.
If the Big Ten accelerates the time frame to resume football from the current target of January, he can claim credit, theoretically helping him with swing voters in his most important states. If they don’t, he can say he tried and blame university presidents for undermining his campaign.
It has put the Big Ten in the undesirable position of becoming a political prop for the White House, a fact Warren and the league’s presidents surely understand. And now that Trump has done what he often does — use Twitter to set the narrative, regardless of the actual facts — the pressure on Big Ten presidents is going to be immense.
But the pressure doesn’t go just one way.
According to a person with knowledge of the Big Ten’s discussions with the White House, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity, the conference is going to lay out a series of requests for the White House, many of which are yet to be fully formed, that would encompass everything from rapid testing to help with a contact tracing program to medical equipment to resources that would help sports besides football.
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You know, the stuff that convinced the Big Ten to not play this fall in the first place.
Only then, if the White House agrees and delivers on those issues and the virus trends are going in the right direction, would the conversation of bringing back football perhaps around Thanksgiving or perhaps slightly earlier begin in earnest. And even if all that happens, the league’s medical advisory board would have to bless it and 60% of the league’s presidents approve it. Input from television networks would have to factor in somewhere, too.
In other words, despite Trump’s tweet Tuesday about “immediately starting up Big Ten football” and being “on the one yard line!” there are many hurdles to cross before the Big Ten is back up and running. At some schools, players aren’t even on campus right now. Even if you declared tomorrow that you intended to play football as soon as possible, it would likely be mid-October before teams could realistically be ready to play games.
The real question is, how much is this “save the Big Ten” political play worth to a president who appears to be behind in the polls? How far is he willing to go to be able to get on the stump in October and brag that he saved Michigan-Ohio State? Or does he care more about the illusion for pushing the ball forward on the Big Ten season than actually doing what’s required to help those schools address their concerns?
Let’s be real about it. If Trump was as passionate about what college football means to the country as what the Electoral College means to his re-election bid, he surely would have reached out to the Pac 12 as well as the other conferences that decided to sit out this fall. Instead, it was just the Big Ten.
And despite a long and well-chronicled history of sports takes on Twitter while he was a private citizen, there’s no documented evidence that he had any interest in Big Ten football before he deemed it a potential campaign issue.
So it’s natural that Big Ten presidents would have some skepticism about both Trump’s motives and whether he’d actually follow-through on resolving the key issues that caused the league to postpone the fall season and still stand in the way. And by engaging with the White House in the first place, they’re opening themselves up to a world of punishment if they don’t comply with Trump’s commands. (Just see the NFL and NBA.)
But caught in the middle of a presidential election and a bungled roll-out of its decision to postpone the fall football season, Warren left himself vulnerable to this kind of savage political opportunism.
The president needs votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, and he clearly believes he can use Warren and the Big Ten presidents to get them — one way or another. He wants to cast himself as the savior of college football in states he has to win, which is understandable given he’s in the middle of his current political predicament. But to actually make that happen will require far more than a phone call and a tweet.