The Midwest-based Big Ten announced its return to action late next month — in time to satisfy rabid college football fans before Election Day across a swath of swing states that the president needs to win.
“Have a FANTASTIC SEASON! It is my great honor to have helped!!!” the president tweeted.
For good measure, the president also tweaked the National Football League on reports that television ratings were down about 9% overall from last season.
The NFL reversed course this season to embrace acts of protest by its players, including kneeling during the national anthem.
Mr. Trump, long one of the most vocal critics of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick, who is credited with sparking the wave of social activism among athletes, blamed the ratings drop on the league’s lurch to the left.
“We have plenty of politics to go around without disrespecting our great American Flag or Anthem,” Mr. Trump tweeted Wednesday. “I thought the NFL learned their lesson two years ago. The people will not put up with this (again). Just not worth it, hard to watch!”
The Big Ten news could be a boost to the president’s reelection bid. The storied conference covers states stretching from the Eastern Seaboard to the Midwest that Mr. Trump is fighting to win against Democrat Joseph R. Biden: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien also celebrated the announcement.
“This is huge news, not just for college football fans, but for all Americans looking for key indicators that we can reopen our society and our economy, and do so safely,” Mr. Stepien said. “President Trump has been publicly advocating for the Big Ten and other conferences to return to the field, directly engaging with the Conference and Commissioner Warren, and it’s a triumph to see the unanimous vote of the member schools to begin the football schedule next month.”
Mr. Stepien said important to the conference’s decision was “the vast progress in same-day coronavirus testing capabilities and improvements in general public health, proving that the president’s unprecedented response to a public health crisis is working.”
“College football is an enormous part of fall Saturdays for millions of Americans, and it is coming back, thanks in no small part to the leadership of President Trump,” he said. “We know that Joe Biden would not have pushed for this, since he has looked for every reason to keep our country closed for as long as possible, because he believes it would help him politically.”
An unidentified Big Ten university president told NBC News that Mr. Trump “had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations. In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative because no one wanted this to be political.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, addressing the Big Ten’s decision at a press briefing, said she had discussed it with the president.
“[Mr. Trump] wanted to thank the Commissioner of Big Ten football, Kevin Warren, and all of the players, parents, coaches and fans who wanted more than anything to play football,” she said. “The president was happy to get this thing going.”
Ms. McEnany added, “Now you will have players in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota, Mississippi and in Nebraska who will now have access to football, which is very good to see.”
She mistakenly included Mississippi and omitted Michigan, which is home to the Michigan Wolverines, the Michigan State Spartans and 16 electoral votes.
At campaign rallies, the president has criticized the Big Ten for canceling fall football.
“I want football back,” Mr. Trump said Aug. 28 in New Hampshire. “These are young, strong guys. They’re not going to be affected by the virus. They’ll be just fine. I’ve been calling for football to be back, including Big Ten. Big Ten, get with it. Open up your season, Big Ten.”
He said Democrats “don’t want it back for political reasons.”
The Big Ten made its decision after weeks of pressure from athletes, coaches, parents and fans to reverse course as other conferences such as the SEC and ACC forged ahead with plans to play football during the pandemic.
Ohio State star quarterback Justin Fields urged officials to reconsider and organized an online petition that garnered more than 300,000 signatures. Coaches, including Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and Nebraska’s Scott Frost, openly criticized Mr. Warren’s decision to postpone the season.
When Mr. Warren explained the conference’s rationale to halt its season last month in an open letter to fans, he cited safety concerns such as the “alarming rate” of COVID-19 transmission rates and schools’ contact tracing for their athletes. Mr. Warren said the decision would not be revisited.
But on Wednesday, the Big Ten announced an eight-game schedule that is set to begin the weekend of Oct. 24. The conference, which formed a return-to-play task force after the initial cancellation, will have daily coronavirus tests and cardiac screening for athletes, coaches, trainers and all other personnel who will see the field this fall.
All 14 members of the Big Ten, including Maryland, are on track to play this fall. Terrapins coach Michael Locksley said in a statement that he was “thrilled” to have games return, though school officials said the contests in College Park will be held without fans.
The Big Ten is expected to release a full schedule in the coming days.
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