What brought back Big Ten football from the brink? Was it pressure from state legislators? Democrats overplaying a hand? Money?
All of those things, probably. But it doesn’t matter, because Trump is taking credit for it. He was always going to take credit for it.
The president’s latest “victory” comes as the Big Ten reverses course on an August decision to halt its football season. It was a unanimous ruling today from conference presidents — a mandate, and a sea change from last month’s 11-3 shutdown vote.
Football is an incredibly silly game. It seems ridiculous to think the sport might influence anything more than a small-town election, let alone constitute a multi-state Republican coup, up and down the ticket, in November. But America is a land of bullshit, built on violence and spectacle and hysterical allegiance. Football is a faithful representation of our national character. It’s not a good thing.
Midwest GOP state legislators clearly understood this last week when they sent a thuggish open letter to the Big Ten — in substance, making conference officials an offer they couldn’t refuse.
“Nice budget you’ve got there,” the letter may as well have read. “Would be a shame if something happened to it.”
It’s those wily motherfuckers, not Trump, who seem responsible for this shady return of the Big Ten. Key legislators at state levels, like Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, the letter’s author, and his Iowa counterpart, Pat Grassley — grandson of the U.S. senator — are in far stronger positions than the White House when it comes to vice-gripping the balls of noncompliant school leaders. Chancellors, presidents, and athletic directors at public universities are state employees, after all.
Republicans are hardly the only ones exploiting football’s cultural magnetism for political ends. Democrats are not very good at it, though. In recent weeks, for instance, the Biden campaign rolled out an attack ad featuring an empty stadium in a sleepy, pandemic-ravaged college town. This is Trump’s fault, the commercial argued. It’s probably true, but note the implication: Were Trump not in office, the town would be brimming with excitement! That stadium would be full of life, and raucous good fun, and sorority girls with nice-smelling hair!
Sweet Jesus! Sign us up, right?
Well, now, Trump can take credit for bringing that utopian dream back to multiple battleground states and, of fucking course, he has already done so. Meanwhile, Biden is forced to regroup after throwing away stacks of cash on a now-worthless ad push. Democratic leadership has been outflanked, again, and everyone could see it coming except those tasked with shaping Biden’s campaign message.
“It is my great honor to have helped!!!” Trump tweeted today, with three exclamation points, like an enthusiastic toddler.
And guess what? The first games will be played a few weeks before Election Day. Great.
Elsewhere in our stupid national conversation, nobody has bothered to mention the Pac-12, which preceded the Big Ten last month in its decision to cancel fall sports but whose fate is now devoid of electoral interest. There are two reasons for this apathy:
- Pac-12 football sucks.
- Pac-12 schools are located mostly in deep-blue territory. It’s a steeper political challenge for Republicans — and ultimately a less rewarding one — than leaning on Big Ten suits and wooing that conference’s legion of swing-state-voting football fanatics.
But don’t be surprised if the Pac-12 reverses course now, too, despite the relatively scant pressure it faces. The conference has offered no formal timeline for a return, but whispers have teams aiming for a November restart. It’s even more likely now, with the Big Ten’s decision providing cover for Pac-12 presidents to reverse their own course without losing face.
Updated Sept. 16, 2020 at 7:30 p.m.: On Wednesday evening, Trump indeed called on the Pac-12 to reactivate as well: “Pac-12, you’re the only one now,” Trump said. “Open up, Pac-12. Get going.”
In fact, those gears are already turning, and it’s only been a few hours.
Football was always going to come back. In fact, overwhelmingly, football has not gone away. The NFL lost a few preseason games, but who cares? For now, the NCAA’s Power Five is the Power Four, but who cares? By positioning Trump as Party Pooper-in-Chief, the Biden campaign has not only eaten crow in the wake of today’s Big Ten announcement — they’ve given Trump the perfect lane to take credit for something he ultimately didn’t do.
The White House today, in a press briefing, dedicated time to the conference’s return. Press secretary Kayleigh McEnany rattled off a list of states that “now have access to football.”
McEnany forgot about Michigan, but did include Mississippi, a state with zero Big Ten programs.
Everything is shit.