President Donald Trump and several Republican members of Congress are pushing universities to save the college football season as the coronavirus dampens hopes for the sport this fall.
"Play College Football!" the president tweeted Monday afternoon, earning tens of thousands of "likes" in a matter of minutes.
"The student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled," Trump also tweeted, hours after prominent athletes began a social media campaign calling for universal health and safety protocols, as well as the creation of a college football players association to respond to the pandemic.
Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Marco Rubio of Florida and Kelly Loeffler of Georgia — as well as Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan — also pressed for the show to go on, while a growing number of conferences, schools and two of the NCAA’s three divisions have already upended their seasons or canceled competitions.
“This is a moment for leadership,” Sasse wrote in a letter to the Big Ten Conference, one of college sports’ five wealthiest and most powerful institutions, as the the Detroit Free Press reported that conference officials were expected to vote to cancel this year's contests. “These young men need a season. Please don’t cancel college football.”
Politicians diving into the sports shutdown debate marked a day of fresh tumult for the campus athletics business and will surely escalate fan frustration smoldering on message boards, social media and sports talk radio into a broader political concern.
Spokespeople for several Big Ten schools declined comment Monday, or said no official conference decision on the season had been reached. Some conference coaches, however, took their concerns about a canceled season to the public.
“People need to understand the carnage and aftermath of what college athletics looks like if we don't play,” Nebraska football coach Scott Frost said at a press conference. “This isn't as simple as canceling a Little League game and picking up and playing the next Saturday. There's a lot of effects to our states, to our communities, to our universities, to our athletic departments, to other sports, to people's employment and jobs. This is a huge decision.”
Reports of a Big Ten cancellation arrived days after the conference held back on authorizing full-contact football practices for the season and the Mid-American Conference postponed its fall competitions until at least the spring. The Mountain West Conference indefinitely postponed its fall season, and Virginia’s Old Dominion University announced the cancellation of fall sports on Monday.
"We concluded that the season — including travel and competition — posed too great a risk for our student-athletes," Old Dominion University President John Broderick said.
Already, athletes at hundreds of colleges and universities won't participate in fall sports championships this year, after the NCAA's second- and third-tier divisions canceled postseason competitions last week.
The NCAA’s governing board said athletes must be allowed to opt out of playing if they are worried about getting sick while keeping their scholarships if they have them, and it barred member schools from forcing athletes to waive their legal rights if they want to play. Each NCAA division must also set out rules requiring schools to cover an athlete's medical costs and determine how to accommodate player eligibility standards if they opt out of competing or see their seasons cut short.
Trump and other federal lawmakers are making clear they want the games to go on.
“America needs college football,” Jordan tweeted on Monday.
Loeffler wrote in a separate post that colleges and athletic conferences "need to put politics aside and come together to find a way to safely play college football this season.
Rubio, meanwhile, used his own Twitter feed to repost messages from players and coaches who support proceeding with the football season.
“The risks of going back to school & sports are significant,” Rubio tweeted. “But so too are the risks of not going back … We need to at least try to get to the safest YES possible by identifying what it would take to lower the risk to students, teachers & high risk family & then put that in place.”
“Life is about tradeoffs,” Sasse wrote on Monday. “There are no guarantees that college football will be completely safe — that’s absolutely true; it’s always true. But the structure and discipline of football programs is very likely safer than what the lived experience of 18- to 22-year-olds will be if there isn’t a season.”