“Stick to sports” has become a worn-out cliche in this job. At least I assume it’s worn out since I rarely hear it any more as if anyone could write anything on any topic in 2020 — sports, weddings, comic books, anything — in a pristine bubble untouched by the turbulent outside world.
But when President Donald Trump takes time in a summit on educational issues at the White House to ask University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John about whether Alabama will be playing football this fall, then all the gates are open to talk on the topic.
St. John drew laughs in the East Room meeting when he quickly responded.
“Mr. President, that’s not the first time we’ve heard that question,” he said. “I can promise you.”
The correct answer is, as St. John went on to note, that Alabama is “working on it,” and also that no one knows for sure. To be clear, St. John didn’t just fly to Washington to chat solely about football. There are other very important issues affecting education that were discussed with a wide range of attendees. That doesn’t necessarily mean that St. John got out of Washington without an Alabama fan asking him for the inside scoop on Bryce Young along the way.
The main point, though, is that Trump, who visited Tuscaloosa for a game last November, gave a friendly shout-out to the Crimson Tide. The underlying message is that, in the coronavirus discussion that has become highly politicized, football — both the NFL and college football — is going to be one of the critical barometers of a return to normalcy. That means a “new” normal, of course. You’re not going to see anything be just like it was prior to 2020 again. But in its simplest terms, the thought process is going to be if the Crimson Tide and Sooners and Buckeyes, the Packers and Bears and Dolphins are playing — especially if they are on schedule — then a “victory” will have been won.
How simple is it, though? The NFL, which is a business, can take a fairly straightforward path. Colleges are public institutions, or at least most of the powerhouse football schools are. So imagine the pressures that are being brought to bear in a decision that has to be made in the very near term. The issues include public health, student rights, money (lots of money) and politics. The President didn’t have to be explicit on Tuesday. The message was clear. He wants football. State governments, particularly in deep Trump territory like Alabama, can read between the lines.
Will anyone with real power in college football, if you can determine who that is, decide between safety and money, especially with politics in the mix? Real courage will be required unless the medical realities sweep all questions away in a few weeks. Some people say they won’t. Some say they already have. Coronavirus is, and there is no good way to avoid this metaphor, a political football.
St. John’s reply on Tuesday was humorous but he spoke the truth. Everybody is asking “what about football?” in this state. But you also can learn a lot about what is at stake when you pay attention to who is doing the asking.
Reach Cecil Hurt at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @cecilhurt