President Trump inserted himself squarely into the Big Ten’s plan to return to play on Tuesday, setting up the most intriguing matchup we may see in the league this fall. It’s the United States president lined up against the Big Ten presidents, a battle of wills and political allegiances, all disingenuously put forth in an attempt to capture the hearts and minds of voters in swing states.
Trump tweeted on Tuesday afternoon that he spoke to embattled Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren about “immediately starting up Big Ten football.” He added that the decision was “on the one yard line.”
To say multiple sources denied the notion of the Big Ten playing immediately would not be strong enough. The sources heartily laughed at it. The notion of playing around Thanksgiving is in embryonic discussion, and there’s a desire among coaches to start as early as possible. But “immediately” is in another universe, especially with multiple Big Ten teams not even having players on campus right now.
Trump’s transparent setting up of Warren as a political punching bag this fall to court votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan is so obvious that the only surprise is that he didn’t do it sooner.
That he set up Warren for future abuse with a set of “alternative facts” is straight from Trump’s dog-eared playbook.
The notion of President Trump getting on the phone with Warren arose in a call with the Big Ten coaches on Monday night. (The Big Ten confirmed the conversation and called it “productive,” but added that it will return “at the appropriate time.”) The conversation between the president and Warren was arranged, in part, to see if the Big Ten could have access to rapid testing. The Trump administration announced last week that it will deploy 150 million rapid tests in 2020.
That access to testing, at least in theory, could answer some of the medical reservations that the Big Ten’s medical doctors had before the season. But that’s just a theory. Remember, this is a league that didn’t feel comfortable going to full-contact football practices earlier this summer.
Read into the Big Ten’s defiantly bland statement and you’ll see the Return to Competition Task Force, and the phrases “safest” and “healthiest,” all of which serve as yellow lights to thinking the league can speed back to playing a mainstream schedule this fall.
There are medical minds that need to be changed and presidents attempting to keep their campuses upright amid a pandemic that would have to change their minds too. And the Big Ten presidential 11-3 vote that emerged in court documents on Monday serves as a reminder about just how steep the decision-making reversal will be for the Big Ten moving forward. (Think Northwestern is keen on reversing its presidential vote after announcing on Friday it will be all remote classes for freshmen and sophomores?)
Despite the presidential bluster, here’s what really matters for the Big Ten decisions: They’re not going to be made by the coaches at Nebraska, Ohio State and Michigan, who’ve made it clear they want to play immediately. It’s also not going to be Warren, who through these clumsy last few weeks hasn’t magically mustered the power to make wholesale decisions for the conference.
So the matchup to watch for football to start in late November – at the earliest – becomes president on presidents, the White House versus the college leaders. To label all of the Big Ten presidents as liberal wouldn’t be accurate. Purdue president Mitch Daniels is a former Republican governor of Indiana, but he voted not to play three weeks ago and shows why this issue transcends politics.
Here’s the key fundamental tension to the Big Ten playing at some point this fall: Could the Big Ten doctors see the availability of rapid testing as a big enough medical advancement that they can convince the presidents to reverse their decision? Those are questions that transcend fan desire, and Trump’s presence in this debate has made them exponentially more thorny.
Thanks to Trump’s tweet, any decision will now be viewed through a political microscope. And that could well backfire on Trump, if he actually cared about football being played. He’s likely more interested in an easy target.
The notion of a college president getting pushed around by the actual president wouldn’t go over well with the faculty on many campuses in the Big Ten. And it’s safe to say that for all the noise we’ve heard from coaches and athletic directors that want to play now, there’s been an equal amount of deafening silence from many of the have-nots of the league.
Here’s the safest prediction: taking this meeting projects a rocky few weeks for Warren, who has already endured a rocky few weeks. Trump has already set him up to become a political piñata, as you can already see Trump blaming Warren – not the presidents – for failing to push the ball home from the fictitious “one yard line.”
Trump’s base has been rallied. The Big Ten is the new Wall, Crooked Hillary, Fake News, Amazon, Kaepernick or the Post Office – an entity or person that will be fed to voters as red meat. (It’s easy to predict the Failing Kevin Warren tweets we’ll be seeing in the upcoming weeks.)
The most realistic timeframe for the Big Ten to play remains early January. There’s some reality to the notion of late November, but that’s again going to be up to the presidents. And the presidents are more likely to push back against the president than acquiesce to his naked political tactics.
There’s only one failsafe prediction here – the Big Ten tweets will keep coming from the White House.
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