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College Football in a Pandemic—and What It Could Mean for the Election

Could the decisions made about the NCAA football season affect public opinion in the swing states?
July 8, 2020
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More than 100,000 fans came to Bryant-Denny Stadium in Tuscaloosa to see Alabama and LSU face off in November 2019. (Todd Kirkland/Getty)

In 1950, longtime University of Oklahoma president George Lynn Cross testified before the state legislature about why the school needed more money. When one state senator asked him to be more specific about how the funding would improve the school, Cross wryly replied that “I would like to build a university of which the football team could be proud.”

Public university presidents have long had to navigate the relationship between their schools and their big-money interests, with state legislatures often the connection to keep everyone happy. And for the better part of a century now, a successful college football team has been part of the deal.

College football and the political world will be testing their relationship in the coming weeks, as the harsh realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and college football collide like two huge linemen. As of this writing, there has been no clear guidance from either the federal government or the NCAA—but the schools and football conferences will soon have to decide if it is safe for the scholarship players to suit up about a dozen times a year, or perhaps punt this season into next and cancel the 2020 games.

Already, the numbers are lining up in such a way that the NCAA and school athletic directors are thinking that postponing the season from fall to the spring might be for the best. Just yesterday, the states of Texas, Florida, and Arizona—which have a combined ten universities with big-time football—reported a combined 265 deaths from COVID-19 and about 21,000 new cases. The 10 political swing states—Georgia, Florida, Arizona, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which have a combined 23 universities with big football programs—yesterday reported 426 deaths and nearly 29,000 new cases. Those figures represented 43 percent of the deaths recorded nationwide yesterday, and more than half of the new cases.

So far, hardly anyone from college football has taken a stand on whether the season should proceed. The NBA, MLB, and NHL professional leagues are each trying to go forward with various adaptations—with NBA players sequestering in Disney World—and the NFL is fast approaching the point at which it will have to decide how to proceed with its season. But the major difference is that players in those leagues are paid big money and the college football players are not. Their playing is at the center of a vast economic swirl involving billions of dollars because the college games are very valuable TV content and the universities have structured themselves to depend on that money. But with less than two months before the season is supposed to start, it is quite obvious that the players are at higher risk for becoming infected by the disease if the games do happen. They will have to be quarantined and their movements restricted on campus.

“What I’m really worried about is, campus by campus, across the country, students coming back on the campus and spreading [the virus] like wildfire in their living situations,” said Paul Pottinger, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Washington, in an interview with Yahoo Sports. A member of a COVID-19 advisory committee to the Pac-12 conference, Pottinger said that “unless we get past that, unless we can break that cycle, then it’s hard to imagine campuses even opening up for the fall—for any purpose, much less for athletics.”

How this situation will play out is anyone’s guess right now, as the decision brings together a treacherous combination of conflicting interests: schools, conferences, health care experts, cities, counties, state legislatures, national TV media conglomerates, TV advertisers, and shady college football boosters in the background with cash in hand.

And then there’s this: How might the decision about whether and how college football gets played this fall affect the national presidential election? President Donald Trump is interested in sports, and his interview in May on NBC showed that college football in the fall is important to him and his base:

We want to get it back to where it was. We want big, big stadiums loaded with people. We don’t want to have 15,000 people watching Alabama-LSU as an example. And we want to have where you have the masses, we want to have big crowds.

If college football were played fully this fall as scheduled, President Trump could make the case during the election season that he deserves credit for this symbolic return of “normalcy” in American life. He can also blame the elite academics and snarky Democrats for having tried to keep Saturday afternoon college TV football away from the fans. He is already coming close to that, having tweeted a few days ago that “Corrupt Joe Biden and the Democrats don’t want to open schools in the Fall for political reasons, not for health reasons! They think it will help them in November. Wrong, the people get it!”

It’s too early—and too contingent on other circumstances—to know whether this argument would sway anyone. But again, let’s look at the schools and the key swing states. There are 65 teams in the Power Five conferences—the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC. These schools split some huge media money—a combined $6 billion per year.

Add to that the amount of local money generated by games: a recent analysis of six college football programs found that, on average, there was $13 million in economic activity in the home town for each home game, which comes to $91 million locally for the entire season.

Every political consultant and public office holder knows that keeping $91 million in local coffers is a political plus, and everyone will want to take credit for that regardless of any downside.

The 10 swing states mentioned above have 23 of the big-money college football teams—about a third of the national total. Those states also have 179 electoral college votes.

All 10 of them have Republican-led legislatures, and six have GOP governors. All of which suggests that state political pressure to play football and help the party for the presidential election could be a factor in those key states.

The latest polling numbers have presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden clearly leading in eight of those states, with Trump up slightly in Texas (1.2 percent) and dead even with Biden in Iowa. While lots of press attention has been focused on Trump’s need to win again the three swing states—Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—that in 2016 he won by just a combined 77,000 votes, he could also lose the election if he keeps those three states but loses Florida and Arizona. Florida and Arizona have five college football teams in the Power Five.

The number of daily new reported infections is going up in the counties where these schools reside. And the numbers of new cases recorded in the last seven days in the home counties of the schools in the Power Five conferences are higher than the week before in 47 out of the 65 schools. Yes, some smaller counties—like Tuscaloosa County for the University of Alabama and Lubbock County for Texas Tech—have had only small increases. But some big urban universities have had huge increases: Texas Christian University in the DFW area, Vanderbilt in Nashville, Miami University in South Florida, Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Arizona State University in Phoenix, and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles have seen the recent numbers break records.

The question politically is whether to put about 100 college football players per team—along with coaches and sideline attendants who carry water and health care officials who normally make sure knees work right—at greater risk for the sake of TV money. The players line up at the line of scrimmage inches apart, and “if you’re out of breath and breathing really hard, you can see that’s going to probably expel more respiratory droplets than others would,” Mark Hurst, the Ohio health department’s medical director, told the Columbus Dispatch.

The fans in favor of a normal college-football season can be expected to get louder in the coming weeks: Just quarantine the players, don’t let fans into the stadiums, and remember, the disease is much worse for old people than for young people. But we can also expect opponents to get more vocal: The players can pass on their infections to their family and friends, and traveling to hotspot areas could be a disaster.

“The silence of college presidents and trustees in the face of such insane behavior is deafening,” Donna A. Lopiano, professor of sports management at Southern Connecticut State University and Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College, wrote in Forbes in late June. They continued:

Higher education has lost its mind and its morality. Why? Because the monetary fruits of commercialized college sports have trumped the integrity of higher education, its obligation to provide a safe educational environment and its duty to demonstrate respect for human life.

An additional confounding factor: Identifying which institutions have control over which aspects of the situation. The NCAA says the college sports conferences have authority. The conferences defer to individual schools. Many of the schools say they have to get the green light from local and state government agencies. Then again, state legislatures wield massive control over university budgets, so their approval matters.

It’s easy to see how political pressure might be brought to bear without anyone leaving clear fingerprints.

Still, there is good reason that many savvy observers are skeptical. “The only people who are selling delusion and hope right now are folks who run college football,” said ESPN’s Paul Finebaum last week. “They’re talking about on-time beginnings and full stadiums, but they’re all full of crap. . . . The push to get players back on campus is fine, but it’s reality time now. Anyone who believes the college football season is in good shape is wrong.”

Daniel McGraw

Daniel McGraw is a freelance writer and author in Lakewood, Ohio. Follow him on Twitter @danmcgraw1.