Why Trump and the Republicans have turned college football into a new 'Normandy'

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·13 mins read

WASHINGTON — Football has frequently been compared to war, but rarely has that comparison been made as vividly as it was by former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz during a recent Fox News program. “When they stormed Normandy, they knew that there were going to be casualties, there was gonna be risk,” Holtz said, likening the prospect of playing college football in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to the Allied invasion of France in 1944.

Even before the coronavirus, football had become a thoroughly politicized sport, too violent for some on the left and too woke for some on the right. But then came the pandemic, and President Trump saw an opportunity. Much as with wearing masks and reopening schools, Trump has turned playing football into yet another battle in the culture wars. Such battles often make reasoned debate difficult, but they do force nearly every American paying attention to choose a side.

And to Trump and his closest supporters, playing college football this fall is tantamount to driving the Germans back from Omaha Beach 76 years ago. Vice President Mike Pence said so himself, more or less, on Twitter. “America needs College Football!,” he wrote in an Aug. 10 post. He said it was “important” to “our Nation” but did not explain why.

College football can seem like an economic juggernaut, but that is more Saturday afternoon perception than anything else. In the Power Five conferences, where the very best teams are concentrated, football teams can generate revenue of between $50 million and $140 million per year, says Smith College sports economist Andrew Zimbalist.

But, he says, “virtually all of that goes back into football or other sports,” with “the overwhelming majority” of schools actually losing money on athletics. “College sports, in general, is not a money-making proposition,” Zimbalist told Yahoo News. “It doesn’t feed the schools financially.”

Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz. (Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

The University of Michigan, for example, made $127 million from its football team in 2018. Michigan also has $300.4 million of athletics-related debt. Further, since the school has an endowment that stood at $12.4 billion at the end of 2019, the football revenue figure is effectively insignificant, especially since Michigan reaped $500 million from returns on the investments it made on that endowment.

Sports, of course, transcends economics, not to mention politics. But even at schools where football is immensely popular, health experts worry that now is not the time to resume play. Dr. Charlotte Baker is an epidemiologist at Virginia Tech, whose Hokies have appeared in 33 bowl games and have spent a total of 304 weeks on the Associated Press’s ranking of the nation’s top 25 teams. “I understand that everyone wants football back,” Baker told Yahoo News. But wanting is not enough. “As a society, we don’t have this under control enough.”

The coronavirus does appear to spread much more easily in confined spaces, which would seem to argue in favor of a sport played on 57,600-square-foot expanses of open-air field. “Outdoors is always safer than indoors,” said Lydia Bourouiba, director of the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory at MIT. But, she said, “close interactions even outdoors” could pose a risk. Football is rife with such interactions, including huddles, dog piles and rows of linemen facing off mere inches away from each other.

Trump has downplayed such risks, arguing that football players are simply too fit to become sickened by the coronavirus. That argument lacks supporting evidence, but it does have an obvious political advantage. If there are players on the field come October, it will seem as if Trump is defeating the virus. Plus, many of the fans are likely to be potential Trump voters, since college football is one of the nation’s most Republican sports, along with golf and NASCAR.

Trump had previously tried to turn NASCAR’s rejection of Confederate iconography into a campaign issue, but that didn’t get much traction. College football could be a more potent issue, since it is more directly tied to the reopening of academic institutions.

A protester of NASCAR banning the Confederate flag at its events. (Marvin Gentry/USA Today Sports via Reuters)
A protester of NASCAR banning the Confederate flag at its events. (Marvin Gentry/USA Today Sports via Reuters)

Trump and Pence have tweeted or spoken about college football many times in the last several weeks. Canceling the football season would be a “tragic mistake,” Trump believes. He has not deemed the cancellation of women’s basketball or men’s soccer seasons similarly tragic.

“Like millions of sports fans across the nation, President Trump is eager to see college football return this fall,” White House spokesperson Judd Deere told Yahoo News in response to questions about why the president was focusing on that sport. “The fans want it and the coaches want it, but most importantly, the players want to play, and there are ways to do so safely.”

The only problem with the Normandy analogy is that 4,414 Allied troops would die during the fighting on France’s beaches. Nobody is likely to countenance a number anywhere near that high to watch college football this fall, though the total number of fatalities from the pandemic across the nation is already 10 times the toll from Normandy (170,000 Americans have died from COVID-19).

College athletes are exceptionally fit, but fitness is not a guarantee of immunity. A freshman offensive lineman at Indiana recently went through “14 days of hell battling the horrible virus,” as his mother put it. There are also the repercussions, about which nobody is yet certain because the coronavirus has not been around long enough for researchers to study it. Doctors worry that the coronavirus could subject athletes to a serious heart condition called myocarditis.

“We do not know the long-term effects of this virus on young people,” Dr. Ashish Jha, the newly appointed dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said. He is less worried about players on the field than all the other before-and-after activities associated with athletics. “You’ve got to go change clothes, you’ve got to go shower afterward,” he said.

Bourouiba, the MIT fluid dynamics expert, said that in an “ideal world,” football players would receive “rapid testing providing on-the-spot results” on a daily basis. But such testing is not widely available. And some schools appear to be downplaying the role of testing. Florida State’s athletic director, David Coburn, recently revealed that football players are tested only on a weekly basis. He added that once the season began, players would “probably” be tested once every two weeks.

“That’s not enough,” Baker of Virginia Tech said of Florida State’s plan. “A lot of things can happen in two weeks. That’s really not that great of an idea.”

Some coaches recognize that not only could college football contribute to the virus’s continued spread across the United States, their own players could be at risk for little-understood health effects like myocarditis. “I’d hate to be responsible for that,” said Dartmouth coach Buddy Teevens, who has been praised for making the sport safer by helping to create remote-control tackling dummies that reduce practice injuries.

Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens. (Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Dartmouth head coach Buddy Teevens. (Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“Dartmouth Is the Blueprint for NFL Success in 2020. Yes, Dartmouth,” read the headline of an Aug. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal. Except there won’t be a football season at Dartmouth, or at any of the seven other Ivy League schools: The storied athletic conference became the first in the nation to cancel its football season on July 8. In fact, there will be no sports at all in the Ivies until January.

“It was devastating,” Teevens told Yahoo News. He offered that “there might be a spring season,” but he did not sound especially hopeful. And though he has been a leader in preventing injuries, the pandemic has stumped him much as it has stumped pretty much everyone else.

“There’s just no easy answers,” Teevens conceded. Few would disagree.

Nowhere is that more true than across the South and the Sun Belt, where the coronavirus has been killing hundreds of people per day for months on end. Those are the very states where football is most likely to return, and where that return is bound to make an already bad situation even worse. “You're asking a hot spot state to continue having hot spot status,” Baker said.

Some governors insist on college football regardless, a mentality that Florida State professor Diane Roberts has compared to Confederate bravado. As with the faltering reopening of the nation’s public schools, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has closely followed Trump’s guidance on the pandemic, has led the charge. And like the president, DeSantis has depicted the 2020 college football season as essential to the nation’s civic health.

“At the end of the day, this is a season that these student-athletes will not be able to get back,” DeSantis recently told conservative commentator Clay Travis, who has repeatedly tried to downplay the effects of the pandemic. He not only wants players back on the field but fans back in stadiums like Florida State’s Bobby Bowden Field, which can seat 80,000 people. There will be fans at Bowden Field, confirmed DeSantis spokesman Fred Piccolo Jr. to Yahoo News. “Perhaps not filling stadiums but yes,” he wrote in an email.

The public health expert Jha believes that even if schools allowed only 10 percent capacity at stadiums, fans would still congregate to drink, shout, cheer and heckle in close proximity. “These are not piano concertos that they are watching,” he said. And because fans often travel long distances to attend games, the parking lots (usually home to tailgating parties) could become potent transmission vectors.

“I wouldn’t go to a football game this fall in most parts of the country,” Jha said. In his estimation, only the Northeast, which used restrictive lockdown measures to bring the coronavirus to heel, could host college football games this fall. Other parts of the country may be more eager, but they are also less prepared. “It’s too risky,” Jha told Yahoo News. “I wouldn’t do it.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

That isn’t likely to please Trump, who wants to see full stadiums across the Midwest, Southwest and South, where both football and Trump are enormously popular.

Already, however, some of the country’s major conferences are following the lead of the Ivy League. Both the Pac-12, whose members are on the West Coast, and the Big Ten, whose members include Midwestern powerhouses like Ohio State and Penn State, have canceled the fall season. Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren specifically cited myocarditis as a reason for his decision. “Any time you're talking about the heart of anyone, but especially a young person, you have to be concerned,” he told ESPN.

Those concerns haven’t kept fans from venting, though it isn’t the athletes or athletic directors they are upset at. “I’ve heard more anger directed at the president than I thought,” an ESPN college football radio host told the New York Times earlier this month.

As with virtually every aspect of the pandemic, different parts of the country have interpreted the same epidemiological developments — like the recent findings about myocarditis — in different ways. That confusion has been exacerbated by overlapping authorities between the federal government and individual states. In the case of college football, there is also the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, and conferences like the Big Ten, which stretches from New Jersey to Nebraska.

The NCAA has said it would be dangerous to proceed with a college football season. Carlos del Rio, an Emory University epidemiologist advising the NCAA on the coronavirus, compared the situation to something rather less heroic than the Normandy invasion. “I feel like the Titanic,” he said last week. “We have hit the iceberg and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play.”

President Trump at the White House on Monday. (Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
President Trump at the White House on Monday. (Chris Kleponis/CNP/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Some conferences are proceeding in any case, with the Southeastern Conference and the Atlantic Coast Conference leading the way. An official at the SEC said it was implementing testing and other protocols to keep players safe. Still, he cautioned that the situation could change, especially since the coronavirus continues to sicken thousands daily in SEC states like Georgia and Florida. The official added that Trump’s tweets don’t carry much weight with commissioner Greg Sankey. “That can’t influence our decision,” the official said.

Trump may not have any direct influence on conferences or schools, but he can exert pressure on governors, who are heavily reliant on the federal government during a time of national crisis. Those governors, in turn, set budgetary priorities for state university systems. That creates incentives for schools to follow the president’s directive.

That may explain why DeSantis visited Florida State last week, where he sat at a table with its president, John Thrasher, who is also the former head of the state’s GOP. Also at the table was athletic director Coburn, the football coach and two players from the team.

“We’re here to say, from the state of Florida, we want you guys to play,” said DeSantis, who played baseball at Yale. He appeared to say, much like Trump, that it was more dangerous to leave college athletes to their own devices. “The environment that sports provides at a place like Florida State is a safer environment for these kids than what they would have if they didn’t have access to this environment,” the governor, who is 41, argued.

Gov. Ron DeSantis at a recent collegiate athletics roundtable in Tallahassee, Fla. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Gov. Ron DeSantis at a recent collegiate athletics roundtable in Tallahassee, Fla. (Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)

His spokesman, Piccolo, later told Yahoo News that Florida was justified in urging college football at its state universities. “NASCAR, the PGA tour, the NBA, the NHL and many more sports organizations have figured out a way to do it,” he said, though those are all professional leagues that can sequester players in a way that a university cannot.

“No one is forcing anyone to play or to go to the stadium to watch,” Piccolo said. “Those who want to play and those who want to watch should be able to.”

But even players who do want to play appear to be running into problems. Two days after DeSantis’s press conference, Florida State wide receiver Warren Thompson posted an open letter on Twitter. “The lies from our leaders have backed myself into corner putting my overall well being in jeopardy,” the letter said. “The neglect to respond to this issue is very concerning.”

Thompson’s letter was reportedly occasioned by revelations that a player who had contracted the coronavirus had been allowed to take part in team activities even after testing positive.

Thompson has since apologized for questioning his team’s commitment to safety, and the school is moving forward with its football season as if those concerns had never been raised. Florida State’s first game is against Georgia Tech on Sept. 12.

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