Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his running mate did not have nearly the impact on the presidential race as other news that was breaking this week. If Donald Trump is not re-elected, he can blame Northern Illinois University.
That’s not because the state of Illinois is in play. Republicans haven’t won a presidential election in the Land of Lincoln for more than thirty years and Joe Biden should win it as easily as Trump will carry Mar-a-Lago. But last weekend, Northern Illinois’ president successfully lobbied his colleagues representing the other schools of the Mid-American college athletic Conference (MAC) to cancel their fall football schedule. The MAC voted unanimously that the threat of the COVID-19 coronavirus was sufficiently dire that protecting the health of their member schools’ student athletes meant that plans to play this season’s games must be abandoned. By Tuesday, both the Big 10 and Pacific 12, two of the nation’s largest and most visible college athletic conferences, had called off their fall sports programs as well.
At the time this story was posted, the other conferences in the so-called “Power Five" were still holding out. But as student-athletes have contracted the virus, as practices have been postponed and as a growing number of schools are opting for online classes this fall, the likelihood of college football games being held in 2020 seems increasingly unlikely. Some schools may decide to postpone their schedules until the spring semester; others will simply write off an entire season and try again next fall. But either way, it’s clear that one of America’s most familiar leisure and social pastimes will too be compromised by COVID-19.
While professional sporting events in this country are taking place at least for the time being, the absence of college football from this fall’s calendar will represent an extraordinary cultural disruption for millions of Americans. The empty stadiums will inflict significant economic pain on college towns across the country, as they have come to rely on the hotel, restaurant and travel revenues that alumni and other loyal fans bring with them each weekend. And the lack of games is yet another blow to the efforts of universities to maintain some level of normalcy on campuses all but emptied of students, professors and in-person classes.
So why is this a problem for President Donald Trump? Because the president has recognized since the first days of the pandemic that the key to his re-election is finding a way to reassure the American people that the pandemic is only a temporary interruption to their lives, and that a return to normalcy is just around the corner. He gambled in the spring that pushing for a faster reopening of the economy would reverse the virus-driven downturn. More recently, he has been calling for public schools to open in the fall, because he knows that getting students back into their classrooms is not only necessary for their parents to return to work, but also a psychological reassurance that American lives are returning to something more closely resembling normal.
College football does not have the same immediate impact on the lives of most Americans as their jobs and their children’s education, of course. But those Saturday games, especially in the Southern and Midwestern parts of the country, are a familiar and essential part of the rhythms of our society. Trump needs voters to feel reassured that things are under control, and these weekly reminders of our dislocation will simply make them feel even more unsettled.
These feelings are even more intense in rural and small town America, where Trump’s political appeal is the strongest. Friday night football games are a key social elixir in many of these communities, and Saturday afternoon gatherings, whether in a stadium, a local bar or restaurant, or at home in front of a big-screen TV, represent time-honored customs and traditions as well. Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are difficult enough to achieve in the work week (and are often less necessary in sparsely-populated areas), but depriving people of their established and comfortable weekend bonding opportunities underscores the pandemic's disruptive effects.
Voter concerns about their lives and livelihoods will be the primary drivers of this election’s outcome. But their battered psyches matter too. And every reminder of how much their lives have changed this year becomes one more argument against staying the course.
Dan Schnur is a Professor at the University of California – Berkeley, Pepperdine University, and the University of Southern California, where he teaches courses in politics, communications and leadership. Dan is a No Party Preference voter, but previously worked on four presidential and three gubernatorial campaigns, serving as the national Director of Communications for the 2000 presidential campaign of U.S. Senator John McCain and the chief media spokesman for California Governor Pete Wilson. He has a Center bias.
Want to talk about this topic more? Join Dan for his weekly webinar “Politics In The Time of Coronavirus” on Thursday mornings at 11 AM PST. You can register for it here. Or read more of Dan’s writing at: www.danschnurpolitics.com.
This piece was reviewed by Managing Editor Henry A. Brechter. He has a Center bias.