The collisions of college sports and politics have vacillated in intensity from ceremonial to obtrusive over the decades. We’ve seen presidents wave to adoring crowds, congressmen attempt to hijack the name, image and likeness debate, and governors gerrymander conference realignment maps.
With college football’s initial kickoff nearly two weeks away, it’s impossible to ignore the impact that politics could have on the decisions looming over the sport. The same vexing issues that COVID-19 have brought to the country – safety concerns, school openings and liability – also shroud college athletics as it lurches forward.
“College football is becoming part of the culture war,” said James Carville, the longtime political pundit. “Which is not good from my vantage point.”
Seventy-six of the 130 FBS college football programs still intend to play the season. Four of the 10 FBS conferences have canceled.
The map of the remaining power leagues in college football – Big 12, ACC and SEC – looks remarkably like a political map, with the red states who supported President Trump in the 2016 election primary among those still playing. While that comparison isn’t perfect, it’s notable that all 11 of the states in the SEC footprint voted Republican in the 2016 presidential election.
Not surprisingly, Trump has tweeted multiple times encouraging the sport to play and said in a Fox Sports radio interview that it would be “tragic” if college football didn’t.
Perhaps no state is indicative of the political crosswinds more than Texas, which has 12 programs that play in five of the six remaining conferences. They vary from public (Texas to Texas State) to private (TCU to Rice) and in geography (Houston and UTEP are 744 miles apart.)
They are bonded, however, by a game that provides the state’s indelible Friday Night Lights identity. And that’s why Texas Tech chancellor emeritus Kent Hance, a former congressman, said politics will play a role. He pointed out the state’s politicians are in tune with what the constituents want.
“I think within the state of Texas, there’s a tremendous amount of push to see it played,” Hance said of college football. “I think that’s what you see from Governor [Greg] Abbott and others. They’re in tune with the public. This is what the public wants in Texas.”
Hance said there’s a 70 percent chance the season starts, but doesn’t give it much of a chance to finish. “I don’t know what all is going to happen,” Hance said in his central casting, dry-rubbed Texas drawl. “When it’s all been said and done, there’ll be a lot more said than done.”
While there’s a strong push to play at traditional stalwarts like Texas, Texas Tech and TCU, the political influence may end up impacting the smaller leagues in Texas more than the power conferences. Many of the Group of Five schools still playing, especially those in the Sun Belt and Conference USA, will lose more money playing this season than they would if they canceled the season.
The testing costs are expected to be significant, and those leagues lack the caliber of television deals to make the season profitable. Without fans – or with limited fans – and no million-dollar buy games, the financial incentive is limited. One athletic director in a Group of Five league said that’s where optics and politics enter.
“I would say the Group of Five leagues still playing overlap, by and large, with the [Power Five] leagues still playing,” the AD said. “Politically, as long as those [Power Five] groups are in and defending being in, it makes it very difficult for the [smaller] leagues to get out.”
One state that appears intent on playing is Mississippi, which is scheduled to host the first college football game of the season. South Alabama travels to Southern Miss on Sept. 3 in a game that would be widely ignored in a traditional calendar. But in 2020, it’s being watched closely around the country as a bellwether for a sport that spent last week teetering with the announcement that the Big Ten and SEC wouldn’t play.
Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has been vocal about college football. He’s tied the wearing of masks to the sport in recent weeks, saying that the best way for people in Mississippi to see college football is to wear a mask. Reeves went out of his way to point out how much he detested wearing a mask – “I hate it more than anybody,” he was quoted saying.
His comments are indicative of how college football can used as a lure for politicians.
Austin Barbour, a Republican political consultant based in Jackson, said that Reeves’ comments encouraging playing have been especially popular with business owners in the college towns that sustain themselves on gameday crowds. College crowds in Mississippi have been limited to 25 percent attendance.
“Football is a religion in Mississippi, and it’s an important one,” Barbour said. “The governor has made his comments, and he’s been widely supported with what he’s said. Most people believe he’s on the right side of the argument as well.”
How overt the politics will be felt in college football remains to be seen. Just because governors have been vocal about states opening and sports playing doesn’t mean they’re directly lobbying athletic directors. The school presidents are most likely to find themselves at the epicenter of a political nexus, as many of them – depending on the state – answer to boards that are appointed by governors. In June, Abbott reportedly spoke with the 12 athletic directors in Texas on a Zoom call.
“I can’t speak for the others,” said Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia of the Big 12, which is among the leagues still playing. “We didn’t hear anything. In all of our [Big 12] conversations, I haven’t heard anything about governors weighing in on this.”
SEC commissioner Greg Sankey lives in a state where football is so popular that former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville is a double-digit favorite to win one of Alabama’s Senate seats in November. This is despite any significant political experience and a limited articulation of policy specifics.
While many of the governors in the SEC footprint have been vocal about the reopening of schools and playing of sports, Sankey said he hasn’t felt any specific political pressure.
“I don’t,” Sankey said in an interview this weekend. “There’s just pressure on a decision. I haven’t felt it in a political way. I know the realities around our country. That’s not been a point of focus for me.”
Carville is a devout LSU fan who wants to see the SEC play. But he’s also realistic. “Most people who know something don’t seem to be terribly optimistic,” he said.
He also acknowledges that there’s “a lot of green” between now and when the SEC is scheduled to open on Sept. 26. He recalled a recent event he attended in Dallas when he was told that “people are going to blame the Democrats” if there’s no football.
He chuckled. “Everything gets politicized. I guess this is, too. Sadly, it’s become a cultural touchstone. I hope they play.”
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