Sep 9, 2020 - Sports

College football becomes a political proxy

Illustration of two football helmets, one blue with the Democratic donkey and one red with the Republican elephant, facing off.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

College football has become a key political issue as the 2020 election approaches, and the impending NFL season will only ratchet up the intensity around empty stadiums and player protests.

Why it matters: Football is America's most popular sport. And considering 43 of the top 50 most-watched TV broadcasts last year were football games, it's arguably our most popular form of entertainment, period.

Driving the news: Politicians have been leveraging the state of college football for months, and now both parties are looking to tie the Big Ten's decision to postpone the season to their own political narratives.

  • 10 elected officials from six states sent a letter Tuesday to Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren, urging the conference to play football this fall. All 10 lawmakers are Republicans.
  • The Biden-Harris campaign has been running ads in Big Ten markets — including the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan — featuring images of empty football stadiums. "Donald Trump put our nation on the sidelines. Let's get back in the game," Biden tweeted alongside the ad.
  • President Trump spoke last week with Warren about "immediately starting up Big Ten football." The call was set up by sports personality Clay Travis, whose brand is "partly rooted in attacking progressive athletes and accusing ESPN of liberal bias," writes WashPost's Ben Strauss.
  • Worth noting: 69 of the 77 FBS schools playing football this fall (89.6%) reside in states that supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, per Sportico.

What's next: The NFL season kicks off tomorrow. With players expected to protest during the national anthem, the kneeling debate will rage on — and perhaps become a bigger focal point than ever with the election coming up.

  • Given its more conservative fan base, the NFL could face more backlash than the NBA for its social justice initiatives (helmet decals, on-field messaging, etc) and not "sticking to sports."
  • The majority of football fans (50.5%) identify as Republicans, while the majority of basketball fans (59.7%) identify as Democrats, per FiveThirtyEight.
  • 75% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans believe athletes should feel free to voice their political and cultural opinions, per a June Morning Consult survey.

The bottom line: Empty stadiums speak to the state of the country and player protests say a lot about its soul. Naturally, politicians are going to lean into those hot-button issues over the next two months to try to win votes.

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