Senators anxious for football to start, but maybe not as anxious as Trump

Whatever happens this fall, lawmakers have gotten mileage out of football during the pandemic

Sen. Richard Shelby has been spotted on the Hill this month wearing a Crimson Tide mask, and Sen. John Kennedy sounds bullish on football returning in the fall.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Sen. Richard Shelby has been spotted on the Hill this month wearing a Crimson Tide mask, and Sen. John Kennedy sounds bullish on football returning in the fall. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted May 21, 2020 at 6:00am

It’s been more than two months since a major American sport has held a contest. March 11 was the day the NBA suspended play indefinitely after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. The NHL followed suit, as did Major League Baseball, postponing opening day while it works on a plan to start the season, possibly without fans in the stands.

But professional and college football are perhaps in the best position of all the leagues, having ended their seasons just before the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up in the United States.

Football, the nation’s No. 1 sport, is as close as it gets to a money printing machine. The NFL generates billions in revenue from ticket sales, television broadcast deals and advertisers who are eager to partner with the league because of the eyeballs it draws.

Meanwhile, college football conferences rake in millions with television deals. It’s hard to overstate how important the sport is, particularly in the South and Midwest. It’s an economic engine for schools, a recruiting tool and the center of identity and social life for many of its fans. Anyone who’s ever seen University of Georgia fans greet each other by barking and yelling, “Go Dawgs” knows this.

The political implications surely aren’t lost on President Donald Trump, who has attended several college games while in office. The return of football could restore some semblance of normalcy on weekend afternoons and boost the national mood, particularly among constituencies crucial to his reelection this fall.

“It’s a shame when 50 years from now, when you look at records and you see a dead season, it’s a shame,” Trump said earlier this month on Fox News, praising the NFL for releasing a complete schedule for the 2020 season, however aspirational.

The NFL season should start on time, the president said in an April conference call with major sports commissioners, according to ESPN.

“I want fans back in the arenas,” Trump later said during a briefing at the White House. “I think it’s ... whenever we’re ready. As soon as we can, obviously. And the fans want to be back too. They want to see basketball and baseball and football and hockey. They want to see their sports. They want to go out onto the golf courses and breathe nice, clean, beautiful fresh air.”

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are anxious to get the seasons started too but acknowledge there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what that would look like.

There may be no bigger football fan in the Senate than Marco Rubio. Following the recent NFL draft, the Florida Republican even changed his Twitter avatar to a photo of former University of Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the Miami Dolphins’ first round pick.

Rubio says he’s been in touch with the Dolphins franchise, but stresses that the team is at the mercy of league officials.

“They’re dependent on what the league allows them to do. ... I think they intend to play a season,” he says. “Whether it’s a full season is the open question.”

Right now teams in the NFL have permission to open their facilities so long as they abide by “governing state and local regulations, are in compliance with additional public health requirements in their jurisdiction, and have implemented the protocols that were developed” by the NFL’s chief medical officer. That means no more than 50 percent of non-player staff, up to a total of 75 each day.

“This first phase of reopening is an important step in demonstrating our ability to operate safely and effectively, even in the current environment,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wrote in a memo Friday. “After we implement this first phase, and as more states and localities enact policies that allow more club facilities to reopen, I expect that additional staff, likely including coaching staff, will be allowed to return to club facilities in a relatively short time.”

Several teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Pittsburgh Steelers, have begun to reopen under the new guidelines.

However, the fate of college football is a bit murkier.

“Everybody is saying they want to do college football,” says Alabama Sen. Doug Jones. “I just think it’s a little early.” 

Though he’s anxious to see football return, Jones is cautious when asked whether it would be smart for schools to begin the season even if students aren’t allowed on campus.

“I’d love to see them try,” he admits. “But they’ve got to be careful. I mean, look, safety and health is the number one concern.”

“I really don’t have an answer for that yet,” he adds. “I don’t think we can plan too far ahead. I’d like to just kind of see where we are and we can adjust across the summer as we get closer.”

Jones’ likely opponent in this fall’s Alabama Senate race will be Republican Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach of the year who once led the Auburn Tigers to an undefeated season.

How important is football in Alabama? Tuberville has never held public office but is currently leading the polls over former Sen. Jeff Sessions in the Republican primary runoff scheduled for July 14.

Sen. John Kennedy, whose LSU Tigers are the 2019 college football champions, sounds even more bullish. “My personal opinion is that we will have football,” the Louisiana Republican says. He hasn’t talked with university presidents but expects schools to also return to in-person classes. Even if they don’t, he’d like to see a football season.

In a significant step toward that goal, college football’s governing body, the NCAA, voted Wednesday to lift its ban on athletic activity on campuses, according to Yahoo Sports. Stating June 1, football players can work out at schools with the approval of state and local government, conference and university officials.

“My guess is that they’ll have to make a decision by July or early August, at the latest, both for the season and for reopening the colleges,” says Kennedy. “I think there will be football.”

“We may not have fans, but we will have games,” he continues. “I just can’t imagine that the season will be canceled.”

Whatever happens this fall, lawmakers have already gotten mileage out of football during the pandemic. Several lawmakers have been seen around the Capitol repping their teams through mask wear. Sen. Richard C. Shelby plastered Alabama pride across his face in the form of a Crimson Tide face covering. Meanwhile, Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts wants everyone to know he’s a fan of the six-time Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.

“Chairman McGovern offends me by wearing that Patriots mask,” his Republican colleague Rodney Davis bantered at a recent hearing, in a sign that, pandemic or no, the sport is still a source of friendly rivalry and political good will on the Hill.

“Get used to it,” McGovern shot back.

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