Playing football in a pandemic always was political… but not in the way you might think

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I am on Twitter a lot. I interact with fans and journalists all over the country, in every region. I blog about college football from home; I don’t fly across the United States, so I don’t talk a lot with players.

By Matt Zemek

I do podcasts with commentators — some as a host, most of them as a guest analyst. I live in the West, but I talk to plenty of people in the South. I don’t know everything there is to know about the different regions of the country, but I can get a general sense of what people are thinking in various corners of America.

One of the things I have seen, heard and read in the past week from a number of fans and commentators across the country, including but not limited to the South, is the idea that “college football has become political.”

When people explain that statement, they generally mean — from what I can perceive and interpret — that college football has become yet another Red versus Blue issue, where Republicans and red state citizens want to play while Democrats and blue state citizens want to shut things down.

To be sure, there is SOME truth in that statement. The Pac-12 — situated in the West, where I have lived all my life — was always likely to be more cautious since the culture of the conference and the region is more blue and liberal than other regions in the country. Football is not as sacred as it is in the Big 12 and the SEC.

The Big Ten, however, doesn’t fit quite as neatly into that Red versus Blue box. Ohio is a red state. So is Iowa… and Indiana… and Nebraska. Other states in the Big Ten footprint are swing states, not deep blue states. Yes, the Big 12 and SEC are full of red states, so it is natural that they are still holding out hope that college football will return, but it’s overly simplistic to reduce all of this to Red versus Blue and liberal versus conservative.

There are plenty of people with left politics who like college football, and there are plenty of people in red states who — as much as they love college football — have serious concerns about playing. I understand the notion that college football has “become” political in recent weeks, but I am here to say that’s an incomplete understanding of the issue.

Here’s the key point to make: The issue hasn’t BECOME political, as though it formerly wasn’t. No, playing college football in a pandemic — in the SEC and everywhere else — was ALWAYS political.

It just wasn’t political in the way you might think.

This pandemic was never political in the Red-Blue binary world we have become used to as Americans. It was always political (and still is) in the sense that to deal with the pandemic — AND HAVE A COLLEGE FOOTBALL SEASON — we needed government leaders to have plans and pass legislation which would enable this country and its 50 states to successfully handle all (at least most) of the challenges presented to us.

This isn’t about “big government versus small government,” either. In a normal time — without a severe crisis — we could have that legitimate debate. In a CRISIS, however, normal ideological principles and normal political theory go away.

When a global pandemic hits, and the economy crashes, and people can’t work, and newly unemployed people live with the threat of eviction (and therefore, being out in the street and more vulnerable to the virus), and people lose health care since health care is tied to employment, the government simply has to do things. That’s not an ideological conclusion; that’s a basic necessity.

Ole Miss cheerleaders flagsIn other words, politics — policy choices made by elected leaders — were ALWAYS going to be part of a successful effort to play college football in 2020.

It was ALWAYS political, and still is.

If our political system was better, our supply chains would have been healthier, meaning we wouldn’t have been so reliant on China for crucial medical goods and supplies.

If our political system was better, ordinary citizens would have gotten more than one $1,200 check, and elite corporations would have gotten much less than the $6-8 trillion the Federal Reserve poured out to them. There would have been more money for Main Street, less for Wall Street.

If our government was more attuned to the need to play college football, it would have provided a lot more aid to states — Red and Blue alike — to give them more resources to put people in the best possible position to wait out this pandemic and exhibit the best behaviors and practices.

I have said this before and I’ll say it again: Don’t blame your next door neighbor or your annoying in-laws or the stranger in the store who gets mad at you for failing to crush the virus. Blame government, which has not shown much of any urgency in helping working-class Americans but was quick to make sure the stock market retained its value after it plummeted in March. If government had reached out to ordinary people with monthly stimulus checks and had put a lot more money into state relief, we might not have been guaranteed a college football season, but the odds would be so much better.

Imagine if our government had taken a very different approach and had made very different choices with a very different set of priorities. We might have better testing. We might have a populace more inclined to stay home (since stimulus checks make that a lot easier). We might have — with a lot more school funding passed by Congress (compared what has actually been passed, which is to say practically nothing) — a much better chance of having in-class instruction at a lot more schools at various levels.

It was always political — not in terms of Republican versus Democrat, but in terms of the government using a crisis to enrich the wealthy corporate elite, instead of helping working-class citizens and small businesses… and football-playing universities… to have every possible resource available.

This problem didn’t become political in the past week. It always was political… just not in some of the frameworks or contexts we might have originally applied to this crazy and unprecedented situation.

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