Kevin Warren, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, was at his home near Minneapolis one morning this month when President Trump made a hastily arranged call to him.
Warren’s league had decided in August to postpone fall sports because of the coronavirus pandemic, and Trump had a message as rife with political considerations as athletic ones: He hoped to see football revived in the Big Ten, a Power 5 conference home to schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, fabled parts of a sports footprint that overlaps with many of America’s presidential battleground states.
“He made it very clear that he would help in any way that he possibly could to help us return to competition,” Warren said on Friday evening in an interview, his first about his conversation with the president on Sept. 1.
Taken together, the president’s lobbying campaign, amplified with Twitter blasts, and the advertisements of former vice president Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic presidential nominee, blaming Trump for empty stadiums signal the potential potency of college football among some voters in the coming election.
The president has assuredly not forgotten the N.B.A. and the N.F.L., as he has railed against social justice protests by athletes in those leagues to try to galvanize his base of white voters. But the geography of college football’s partial shutdown, a consequence of the decentralized nature of decision-making in the sport, has made gridiron politics irresistible.
He and Vice President Mike Pence separately spoke with sports industry leaders in April, and since then Trump has zeroed in on the politically pivotal Big Ten, all but ignoring the Pac-12, whose schools are mostly in reliably Democratic-voting states.
Mark Emmert, the N.C.A.A. president, said he had not talked with the White House since April. And both he and Denis McDonough, a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama who was on the N.C.A.A.’s top board until last month, both said that the association’s decisions in recent months had not been made because of lobbying by any elected officials.
Greg Sankey, the SEC commissioner, said he had been in touch with some public officials during the pandemic but that the conversations amounted to “supportive, how can we be helpful” exchanges, not efforts to pressure him toward a season in a region that reveres football but has been ravaged by the virus.
But since the Big Ten’s chancellors and presidents voted not to proceed with the season as originally planned, Warren has faced swelling pressure from within his league and politicians beyond it.
Trump took interest in the season’s viability the day before the Big Ten’s decision, retweeting a post by Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence in support of the athlete-driven #WeWantToPlay movement. Lawrence and Trump spoke later in the week by phone, the president said at a news conference on Aug. 15, when he mentioned the recent postponements by the Big Ten and the Pac-12 and said, “I wish they would come back.” (Clemson, a member of the A.C.C., is playing this season.)
The Big Ten’s move left Trump aides bombarded with requests for White House intervention. Many of the pleas went to Timothy Pataki, a senior official who played lacrosse at Ohio State and remained close to the school, among the most vocal in its opposition to the decision not to play on time this fall.
Late last month, Pataki contacted Warren and asked whether he would be willing to speak with the president. Trump called the next morning.
“The biggest thing I wanted to do during the call with President Trump was to listen, to learn and to reiterate that the most important item that the Big Ten Conference continues to focus on is the health and safety of our student-athletes,” said Warren, who became commissioner in January.
The Coronavirus Outbreak
Sports and the Virus
Updated Sept. 11, 2020
Here’s what’s happening as the world of sports slowly comes back to life:
- Baseball plans to hold its playoff games at four stadiums in Southern California and Texas, with the World Series held at the Texas Rangers’ new ballpark.
- N.F.L. teams have spent years trying to create over-the-top entertainment for fans inside stadiums. This year, they’ll just be trying to cover up echoes from empty seats.
- September Saturdays at Penn State are usually the apex of a week of hype. Now, as at other college football destinations, the approach of autumn has been unusually quiet there.
Warren would not describe any assistance that Trump offered, but some college sports executives across the country have been wary of accepting federal aid when the government’s response remains muddled and widely criticized. Warren said that Trump refrained from explicit pressure during the call, which he said lasted about 15 minutes and was “a very professional, respectful conversation.”
“It’s fair to say that he has a desire to have Big Ten sports return to competition,” said Warren, who recalled describing to the president the web of considerations that the league must resolve before holding games.
Trump took to Twitter within hours and declared that the league was “on the one yard line.” Almost two weeks later, the conference’s public posture is unchanged.
Clay Travis, a sports commentator who recently interviewed the president and has long sowed doubts about the risks of the virus, said he believed Trump’s interest in the Big Ten could be linked to the dissent within the conference, including protests and litigation, that had been absent after other leagues canceled football.
“The Big Ten wants to play and not playing has provoked a great deal of rancor,” he said. “I’d be far more concerned about the Pac-12 being canceled and no one caring than I would be about the Big Ten canceling and politicians getting involved.”
The Biden campaign has sought to fault Trump with an internet video tailored to four battleground states where college football has been postponed, each featuring an empty stadium shot at a flagship school, and concluding with the claim that Trump “put America on the sidelines.” The campaign has also deployed prominent athletes to attack Trump for his response to the virus and the cancellation of sports.
Asked whether he was comfortable with this year’s mixing of partisan politics and sports, Warren replied, “There are certain words that I have probably had to eliminate from my vocabulary in 2020, and ‘being comfortable’ is probably one of them.”
Although the N.C.A.A. has limited authority over football, leaving decisions on games to the schools and conferences, the overall political consequences of playing or not are not lost on its leadership.
Emmert, a political scientist by training, noted that many Big Ten schools are in swing states and wryly added that he “can count to 270,” the number of electoral votes required to win the presidency.
But he said he believed most of the angst among people around fall sports could be traced to tradition and pride in college athletics.
“People care deeply about it, and when you see the communications from the fan base and from parents and from others about we want to play or we don’t want to play, most of that’s not driven by the presidential campaign,” he said.
Still, a rising number of Republican officials have begun to follow Trump’s lead. Ohio’s attorney general floated the idea of Ohio State suing the conference, and some officials believe that people in the region will grow angrier about the absence of Big Ten football as other leagues begin playing this month.
“It will make the inconsistencies more dramatic and Big Ten fans and student-athletes more frustrated, and rightfully so,” said Lee Chatfield, the Michigan state House speaker, who spearheaded a letter from Republican legislative leaders across six states who urged the conference to reconsider.
While there is clear frustration over the lack of football, it’s less clear who is getting the blame.
Republican and Democratic political strategists suggested most of it would fall on university presidents and chancellors instead of politicians.
“People realize it was the universities’ decision,” said Representative Haley Stevens of Michigan, a Democrat who represents a suburban Detroit district. “It was not anybody in government.”
And in the Midwest, as in the rest of the country, many voters long ago decided who they would support in November — and if they are upset about the decision, they are likely to pin the blame on the other (political) team.
College sports officials insist they are largely unbothered by what they see as a temporary encroachment of presidential politics, and longtime observers of the industry said they doubted it would significantly affect how fans view the intercollegiate athletics they regard as an escape.
“Not only is it a place where people connect, it’s one of the few sane places left,” said Donna A. Lopiano, a senior athletics official at Texas for nearly two decades and now the president of the Drake Group, a nonprofit that urges changes in college sports.
Trump’s advisers privately believe that the president’s efforts offer a political upside. If they fail, he can at least tell Midwestern audiences that he tried. If the conference opts to play sometime in 2020, he will surely claim a share of the credit.
Should the Big Ten ultimately decide to resume play before Election Day, virtually no one would be surprised to see the president at a Big Ten stadium — and on television screens throughout the Midwest — to welcome a season that seemed lost.