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‘Play college football!’: Trump jumps into emotional debate over fate of season in appeal to conservative fans

President Trump during a briefing Monday. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
President Trump during a briefing Monday. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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President Trump demanded Monday that college football resume playing this fall just as major conferences were on the precipice of canceling, elevating the emotionally charged cultural debate as part of his push to reopen the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump weighed in on Twitter, declaring that “student-athletes have been working too hard for their season to be cancelled” and adding a hashtag — #WeWantToPlay — championed by high-profile players. “Play College Football!” he wrote in another tweet.

A handful of Republican lawmakers — including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Ben Sasse (Neb.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (Ohio), whose states have major college football programs — joined in the president’s lobbying effort, a sign of the deep reverence for the sport among a heavily conservative-leaning fan base in the South and Midwest.

Trump has closely embraced college football during his presidency, and his push Monday came amid reports that some major conferences, including the Big Ten and the Pac-12, were preparing to cancel their seasons after months of deliberations. White House officials declined to say whether Trump has sought to discuss the issue with NCAA officials or university presidents or offered solutions to help protect players and coaches.

His political rivals, including the campaign of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, said Trump’s management of the pandemic has made the environment unsafe. And some analysts said it was unlikely that Trump’s lobbying would heavily influence the decisions of university presidents.

“He’s standing up to make a political point — not standing up for the players. They are a convenient vehicle for him,” Aron Cramer, the president of the nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility, said of Trump. “I assume university presidents will pay attention but not be driven by what the president is saying. They already know many players, though not all of them, want to play. They know the fans want to get out there. They know there’s a lot of money involved. [Trump] isn’t telling them anything they don’t already know.”

Andrew Bates, a spokesman for Biden’s campaign, said in an email, “If Trump had done his job, weddings, graduations, sports, and all manner of other events wouldn’t be impacted in the way they are now.”

Bates did not respond to a question about whether Biden supports canceling the college football season.

The latest on the pandemic and the Trump administration’s response

Among Trump and his advisers, the fate of the college football season is seen as important for public perception over his handling of the pandemic — and how voters will judge him in November. With polls showing Biden holding a consistent lead, the president has pushed to open public schools and restart other aspects of the economy even as the number of coronavirus infections and deaths have spiked this summer.

College football is so popular in some states that Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves (R) invoked the sport last month when he mandated that residents wear masks in public.

“I want to see college football,” Reeves said. “The best way for that to occur is for us all to realize that wearing a mask, as irritating as that can be — I promise I hate it more than anyone watching — is critical.”

Trump’s desire to bolster his political fortunes with a return to normalcy has resulted in him overriding warnings from the medical authorities. In June, Trump contradicted Anthony S. Fauci, the government’s top infectious-disease specialist, who had cautioned that the National Football League might have difficulty safely restarting if a second wave of the pandemic emerges in the fall.

“Tony Fauci has nothing to do with NFL Football,” Trump tweeted in June. “They are planning a very safe and controlled opening.”

During a news briefing Monday at the White House, Trump said: “Schools have to open. We want to get our economy going. We have incredible numbers despite this. . . . I think it’s a very important thing for the economy to get the schools going.”

Trump has sought to tie himself especially closely to college football, attending the NCAA championship game in 2017 at a time when he was feuding with the NFL about players protesting policy brutality by kneeling during the national anthem.

College teams have been the most reliable guests at the traditional White House celebration of sports champions, events that have become highly politicized in the Trump era. On Monday, Trump retweeted a post by Clemson University’s star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who is a leader of the player movement to get back on the field.

“As he mentioned in that tweet, a lot of these college athletes . . . work their whole lives for this moment, and he’d like to see them have a chance to live out their dreams,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said.

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Some of the GOP lawmakers were even more vociferous than Trump. Though Florida’s spike in coronavirus cases this summer has been among the worst in the country, Rubio posted nearly three dozen tweets and retweets pushing for college football’s start.

In one message, Rubio accused unspecified critics of football of using the pandemic to try to end the sport. “They have no interest in getting to yes,” he wrote. “Or in an honest cost-benefit analysis of playing versus not playing.”

In a letter to Big Ten university chancellors, Sasse wrote: “Life is about trade-offs. 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.”