Football should be something that unites us. In general, whether you are a Republican, Democrat or independent, if you’re a sports fan, you’re probably a fan of football. After all, when your favorite team scores you don’t think about the race, religion, ethnicity or political leanings of your fellow fans, you just celebrate alongside them.
In a time of rampant divisions in this country, sports still offer the opportunity to unite us all.
But in the midst of a hyperpartisan 2020 election, football, like many other otherwise non-political events, has become political. The NBA, MLB, the MLS, the NFL, & most of the pro sports leagues are making decisions this summer to embed politics within their on-field or on-court product.
But it’s not stopping there.
Look at the data on who is playing high school football this fall and who isn’t.
States with Republican governors are playing football this fall. States with Democratic governors are, generally speaking, not playing football this fall.
Check it out.
States with Republican governors playing high school football this fall:
States with Democratic governors playing high school football this fall:
Louisiana (set to start in October)
States with a Republican governor not playing high school football this fall:
States with Democratic governors not playing high school football this fall:
Pennsylvania (The battle is ongoing with the governor recommending no fall football)
Still to be determined with Democratic governors:
So look at the numbers. If you live in a state with a Republican governor there is a 25 out of 26 chance your state will be playing high school football this fall. But if you live in a state with a Democratic governor there’s a 15 out of 22 chance (with two states still undecided) that you won’t be playing this fall.
Granted there are multiple factors at play here, but whether your governor is a Democrat or a Republican seems hugely impactful when it comes to whether high school games will be played or not in your state this fall.
Now many of the states that are playing or not playing are predictable. Tennessee and Alabama are playing, for instance, and will be strong states for Donald Trump this fall and California and Washington are not playing and will be strong states for Joe Biden this fall. But what about the toss-up states? The places where the 2020 election will be decided?
Well, given that football has now become political, this raises an intriguing question — could Donald Trump make the lack of football an issue in swing states in the upcoming election? And if so, could doing that benefit his reelection chances?
Look at the states with Democratic governors not playing high school football that Trump won (or lost in a close race) in 2016:
Pennsylvania (Trump close win)
Michigan (Trump close win)
Virginia (Trump loss)
North Carolina (Trump close win)
Minnesota (Trump narrow loss)
Nevada (Trump narrow loss)
Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, in particular, were decided by a total of 78,000 votes, less than the size of an average Big Ten football crowd in those three states. (Wisconsin is playing high school football, but the Big Ten’s popular Badgers are not playing in the Big Ten this fall.)
That’s why you can make a strong argument that if Democrats are going to shut down football that Donald Trump ought to start running political ads in favor of high school and college football being played in these states and blaming Democrats for the games not taking place. Indeed, you can make an even stronger argument that a large part of Trump’s entire Midwest strategy this fall should be ripping the Big Ten for canceling college football.
Sure, there are many other issues that will motivate voters, but most of those issues aren’t as popular with undecided voters and come with trade offs for Trump’s base. Can you think of an issue that would resonate stronger with swing voters for Trump than arguing in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ohio that the Big Ten should be playing college football this fall? And blaming Democrats for the fact that they aren’t playing football?
This isn’t just fanciful thinking either.
If Trump wins the Big Ten, he wins the election.
And right now the cancellation of Big Ten football — as well as high school football in many of these Midwestern swing states — is offering him a powerful opportunity to reach undecided and swing voters.
Amazingly, this would also force Joe Biden to go on the record with whether he believes high school and college football should be played this fall. Welcome to 2020, when football could be a wedge issue to decide which states will go red and which states will go blue.
Heck, if Trump ran an adroit campaign and targeted his pro-football ads smartly at the right undecided or persuadable voters, he might even be able to ultimately get re-elected president just by arguing college and high school football should be being played this fall and the Democrats are keeping it from happening.
Yes, there are far bigger issues at play this fall, but how many voters are angry enough about football being canceled that they’d see football as a larger metaphor for risk-averse Democratic nanny state policies that they would also be likely to reject? Already football parents at Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and Iowa are arguing in favor of their sons being able to play football.
Why shouldn’t President Trump endorse their crusade? As a college sports fan he’s already argued in favor of college football being played, why not push the argument even farther to advance his own electoral ambitions as well? Put it this way, does President Trump lose any voters at all with his argument college and high school football should be played? I doubt it. (I’m not sure there’s a single Trump voter in the country opposed to football being played. But even if that voter exists, he or she would be replaced a thousand times over with people who agree with Trump on football).
Let me put it to you succinctly: do you believe there are several hundred thousand Big Ten and high school football fans in Midwest swing states who are furious football is canceled in their states — while taking place elsewhere — and are looking for someone to blame for that cancellation?
I do. In fact, I don’t just think there aren’t hundreds of thousands, I think there are millions of these fans all over the Midwest.
Which is why there’s a strong argument Democrats are exceedingly vulnerable when it comes to politicizing whether football is being played or not.
And that vulnerability is potentially strong enough that it could swing the 2020 election.
If he wants to use football as a factor to motivate his base, Trump should stop focusing on kneeling and start focusing on playing football. Because the vast majority of his voting base — and independent voters in America who aren’t affiliated with either party — are in favor of football being played.
If Trump could persuade just a hundred thousand of these people to support him in the Midwest, it might well decide the election.
After all, nearly forty million more people watched the Super Bowl last fall than voted for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in 2016.