SABIN: Big Ten isn't willing participant in Trump's game of political football

Detroit Free Press (TNS)
President Donald Trump

As a global pandemic continues to shake this nation to its core, violence erupts in city streets and the American economy wades deeper into a recession, the leader of the free world has launched a campaign to revive Big Ten football this fall.

At 11:18 a.m. Tuesday, Donald Trump announced on Twitter he had connected with commissioner Kevin Warren to discuss the possibility of an immediate restart.

“On the one yard line!” he proclaimed.

But Trump didn’t specify on which side of the field they were, and hours later it became clear they were backed up in the shadow of their end zone instead of on the edge of pay dirt.

The anonymous reaction: The notion of the Big Ten reversing course on its Aug. 11 decree that postponed fall sports indefinitely invited scoffs and derisive remarks by some university power brokers with firsthand knowledge of those decisions.

“Laughable,” one told the Free Press on condition of anonymity.

“F--- no,” another said.

As court documents filed this week in Nebraska revealed, 11 of the Big Ten's 14 member schools voted last month in favor of the shutdown after weighing the medical risks and potential liability of playing football during a public health crisis against the financial hit that would accompany the demolition of the fall schedule. Concern about the infectious nature of the virus and the protocols in place to mitigate the spread were among the factors influencing an unprecedented move that attracted immediate scrutiny.

A move to reconsider: In the weeks that followed, a collection of players organized and petitioned the Big Ten to reconsider. Parents from different teams joined forces and staged protests, including one outside the league’s headquarters. Eight members of the Nebraska Cornhuskers filed a lawsuit.

Then coaches and administrators from around the conference began to use the media to advance an agenda promoting a relaunch of football as early as Thanksgiving week.

The groundswell of resistance united disparate factions, as rivals set aside their differences to coalesce for one common cause.

Trump sees opportunity: Trump saw an opportunity to lead this front in an important political battleground that could decide the November election.

Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan are all up for grabs and they’re in the heart of Big Ten country, where Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, moderates and extremists root for the Buckeyes, Badgers, Nittany Lions, Spartans and Wolverines.

These programs represent alumni bases that are among the biggest in this country and their cultural relevance extends far and wide, where state pride is at stake any time the major public university’s football team takes the field.

Perhaps with the exception of the publicly owned Green Bay Packers, pro franchises don’t engender the same kind of loyalty, zeal and devotion because their supporters aren’t stakeholders.

As someone who once controlled the purse strings of a football team in the doomed United States Football League, Trump understands this.

An appeal to fans: It’s why he has made a concerted effort to appeal to college football fans ever since he has been in office. In January 2018, Trump appeared at the national championship game between Alabama and Georgia. Last November, he dropped into Tuscaloosa to witness LSU’s victory over the Crimson Tide. The following month, he was at Army-Navy. Skip ahead a few more weeks and he was in New Orleans for the LSU-Clemson championship clash.

When Trump wasn’t parachuting in, he courted some of the game’s biggest names — connecting with Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence and LSU coach Ed Orgeron over the phone.

By consistently championing college football, Trump has tried to solidify his base.

Now, he’s using the sport to appeal to undecided voters whose love of their favorite team far exceeds any fondness for a particular candidate.

Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren

Questionable move by Warren: On Tuesday, Warren gave Trump the opportunity to steer his campaign in this direction when he agreed to the phone call.

It was the latest questionable move by a commissioner who has become a convenient scapegoat ever since the Big Ten led the charge to cancel football in 2020.

In recent weeks, the anger and backlash stemming from the conference’s decision has been absorbed almost exclusively by him, even though university presidents were responsible for the move.

Players have called him out while anonymous Twitter users have cried for his removal.

A Big Ten coach recently told the Free Press he had become frustrated Warren has been vilified while the presidents and chancellors have sidestepped criticism.

But in a cognitive sense, it’s easier for people to assign to blame to one man with a public persona rather than a panel of academics who operate behind the scenes.

This is human nature, which Trump also understands.

If the Big Ten doesn’t reconsider its plans, the president can point to Warren and say that he fumbled at the goal line, killing the hopes of major college football in the Midwest.

It doesn’t matter that the play really started at the 1-yard line on the opposite side of the field or that the clock has already expired.

For as long as he wants, Trump can play around with this political football and use it for his purposes. But the Big Ten also knows it doesn’t have to take part in his game.