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Trump claims Big Ten football was ‘totally dead’ before he intervened

President Trump on Sept. 16 congratulated teams in the Big Ten Conference on reopening, saying he worked with the conference's commissioner to make it happen. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump claimed Thursday morning in a radio interview that he took a prominent role in the Big Ten Conference’s decision to reverse field and play football beginning next month.

“I’m really proud of it, because it was dead,” Trump told Clay Travis on Fox Sports Radio’s “Outkick the Coverage.” “It was totally dead, and I told my people, ‘Look, we’ve got to call.’ I said: ‘Who am I going to call? Who’s the head of it?’ And it was [Big Ten Commissioner] Kevin Warren, who really turned out to be very open about it.

Trump was a vocal opponent of the decision last month by several college football conferences to scrap the fall season and attempt to play in the spring because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Thursday, he gave his description to Travis of his previously reported phone conversation with Warren.

“I said: ‘Kevin, look, we’ll help you with testing, we’ll get you everything you need, but you’ve got to get it back for those states. Those states want it. They’re real football states as you can understand, great teams, and very unfair to players,’” the president said to Travis. “It may be their last chance to show their skills to the NFL, so they wouldn’t get that” if there were no fall season.

While Trump and other White House officials indicated federal resources were made available to the Big Ten, one person familiar with the process told The Washington Post on Wednesday that the conference hasn’t been given, nor has it requested, federal assistance. The conference is paying for daily coronavirus tests for athletes, Warren said Wednesday.

After Big Ten changes course, schools say testing, not money or politics, made the difference

The Big Ten consists of 14 schools: Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Penn State and Rutgers in the East Division and Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern, Purdue and Wisconsin in the West Division. Part of the impetus for Trump came from an ad campaign by Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s campaign in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — three states that secured the presidency for Trump in 2016. The ads showed empty football stadiums and text that read: “Trump put America on the sidelines. Let’s get back in the game.”

After the fall sports in the conference were shut down Aug. 11, players initiated a “Let Us Play” movement even as the president was tweeting to “Play College Football” and parents were furious over the decision that made the Big Ten the first major conference to shut down.

“I’ll tell you, a group of people came together so fast once we started it,” Trump told Travis. “They [the conference leaders] sort of gave up, although I’ll tell you who didn’t give up — the parents didn’t give up and the players didn’t give up. They just wanted to play. Enough with this stuff.

“I called Kevin [Sept. 1], and he was open to it and we started talking real fast and hard and they ended up — it culminated in getting it done.”

Trump and the right loved Clay Travis. The fight over college football sealed their bond.

Trump claimed a role in a tweet immediately after the announcement Wednesday: “Great News: BIG TEN FOOTBALL IS BACK. All teams to participate. Thank you to the players, coaches, parents, and all school representatives. Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!”

An unnamed Big Ten university president told NBC News that Trump’s influence was less consequential than that. “President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations,” the president told NBC’s Peter Alexander. “In fact, when his name came up it was a negative because no one wanted this to be political.”

Reviving the Big Ten season, which is now scheduled to start Oct. 23, will have major financial ramifications. With state budgets and other revenue already devastated by the pandemic, the universities were bracing for a huge economic hit. Michigan Athletic Director Warde Manuel has estimated his school alone would lose $100 million without fall sports.

Now, only the Pac-12 among college football’s elite Power Five conferences does not have plans in place to play this fall. That might be changing, Trump told Travis.

“Now we’re going to work on [the] Pac-12. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be playing,” Trump said. “Now they’re the only ones — or just about — and they should be playing. Maybe you can’t, I don’t know. Maybe you can’t at this point. It’s getting a little bit late. But they should be playing football. It’s ridiculous.

“They may have a problem with their venues. Who knows? Some of them have a problem with governors. The governors had to come together [in the Big Ten]. We had some governors who are Democrats and it wasn’t easy, but we got it done. You’re going to have some great football, Big Ten football. It’s really terrific.”

On Wednesday, the Pac-12 announced that officials in two key states were clearing the way for “contact practice and a return to competition.” In a statement, Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott hailed California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D) for helping remove “state restrictions on our ability to play sports in light of our adherence to strict health and safety protocols and stringent testing requirements.”

“We’re going to see what we can do,” Trump said in the wide-ranging interview in which he also claimed to have shot “in the low 70s” at Winged Foot, the site of the U.S. Open this week and one of golf’s toughest courses. “I hear there’s a little flexibility with Pac-12. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up too high. There’s a little flexibility, and we’ll see if we can do it.”

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