President Trump and his fellow Republicans — especially in the South, and especially here in Florida, key to his reelection prospects — love college football. Lots of us Southern progressives love it, too: I’ve been going to Florida State games since I was 9 years old. I can tell you everything that’s wrong with the game, from the misogyny to the subconcussive hits that can cause degenerative brain disease in players to the troubling glorification of violence and militarism to the way often poor young men never get a piece of the vast sums of money they earn for the NCAA and their universities; still, I can’t help myself. I’m a lifer. I wish they could play. The players (most of them) want to play. College town restaurants, hotels and bars, purveyors of branded merchandise and the Walt Disney Co., owner of ESPN, want them to play. But I don’t see how, even in the South, where the cliche about the game being a religion happens to be true, college football can go ahead nearly as normal.
Yet the Big 12, the ACC and the Southeastern Conference, made up of mostly Southern universities (with a sprinkling of schools from the Midwest and Northeast) insist they’re ready to hit the gridiron. This is a political decision, and, to some extent, a cultural one. Trump is egging them on, tweeting “Play College Football!” Members of Congress have weighed in, including Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has his own troubled history with college athletics, and declared, “America needs college football.” Appearing on Fox News’s “Ingraham Angle,” former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz invoked football’s favorite exaggerated equivalent — war — to compare playing the game to taking the beaches on D-Day: “There’s no way in this world that you can do anything in this world without a risk,” Holtz said. “People stormed Normandy … they knew there were going to be casualties, they knew there were going to be risks, but it was a way of life.”
The Allies suffered 226,000 casualties during the Normandy campaign, but you’ll never get the College Football Industrial Complex to stop using battle metaphors, even though this year young men could actually die playing the game. In the South, college football has long been a sort of do-over for the Civil War: renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice (grandson of a Confederate officer) constantly compared games to the battle of Gettysburg. When Southern California beat the scrappy Tennessee Volunteers in the 1940 Rose Bowl, Rice rhapsodized, “It was a magnificent charge in a lost cause. It was Pickett at Gettysburg.”
Football always references war, and patriotism: Your side takes the other side’s territory and tries to stop them from taking yours. And just like in war, football is also about traditional masculinity. Many Americans, especially in red states, love the vision of society college football presents: Boys are big, strong and appropriately violent, while girls are small and pretty, faithfully cheering on their menfolk from the sidelines, even if the team loses by 40 points. There’s no blurring of gender roles in this retro-America, and the racial roles are pretty stark, too: Older White men are in charge (85 percent of Power Five coaches are White) while young men of color — 55 to 60 percent of Power Five football teams — perform the labor. Small wonder civil rights historian Taylor Branch famously detected “a whiff of the plantation” around college football.
Trump has made clear this is the America he likes to be president of, the America in which there are still “suburban housewives” frightened that people of color might move into the affordable housing next door, the paranoid evangelical fringe convinced that Muslims are “taking over” and the White folks terrified that demonstrations against racism and police brutality equate to anarchy.
He’s also the president of what Teddy Roosevelt called “rough, manly sport.” Trump doesn’t like the NBA (too many Black guys wearing Black Lives Matter slogans on their jerseys, too much kneeling during the national anthem), but he adores football the way he adores the military. It is, to use one of the president’s favorite words, “tough.” In a strange and medically dubious rant on Fox Sports Radio’s “Outkick the Coverage,” he told the nation it would be a “tragic mistake” to cancel the college football season. The players, being young and strong and “in great shape,” are not as susceptible to the coronavirus, he claimed, what with them being “so powerful and so strong, not lots of body fat, although you could take a couple of offensive linemen perhaps and dispute that perhaps …” concluding that only the old and the obese are at high risk of dying from covid-19. To further his argument, Trump insisted the athletic conferences should listen to coaches he likes, especially Nick Saban of Alabama, Ed Orgeron of Louisiana State University (who called football “the lifeblood” of the nation) and, of course, his beach-storming friend Holtz.
Out of the 18 states represented by the three conferences still saying they’ll play this season, 11 have Republican governors, and even some of those with Democrats in charge — Kentucky, Kansas and North Carolina — have Republican legislatures. These are the states where Trump’s die-hard political base thrives. If college football falls victim to the pandemic (and Republican mismanagement of it), the discontent will roil the fan latitudes.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) understands this. On Tuesday, as our state reported a single-day record number of covid-19 deaths, DeSantis held a news conference at Florida State’s air-conditioned indoor practice facility, along with players and coaches, to plead college football’s case. “To take away that season would be short-circuiting the dreams that so many of our student athletes have worked for, in many cases, their whole lives,” he said. “We want you guys to play.”
DeSantis, a fervent Trump partisan and sports fan who’s shown signs of harboring presidential ambitions, has seen his popularity shrivel of late, possibly because of his cackhanded approach to the pandemic in Florida: opening up too soon, refusing to mandate masks, hiding virus data from the public. He, too, has hitched his political future to football. Which I can’t really blame him for, no matter how much I disagree with him on the real issues; from September to December, we both still invest way too much of our emotional well-being in 19- and 20-year-old boys beating the hell out of each other on grassy fields.
While SEC and ACC doctors insist the season can go ahead safely, others, including Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, take a dim view of current safety protocols. Some FSU players are worried, too: Three wide receivers, one of whom has tested positive for the virus, are challenging the university’s claims about its testing regime.
At this point in the sticky Deep South August, it feels like we’ll need a miracle to get to watch the Seminoles play. Florida currently has more than 557,000 coronavirus cases and 8,900 deaths. And miracles are scarce these days. Much, much scarcer than covid-19.