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Thursday, July 18, 2024

How Fighting For College Football Became The Biggest Battle Of My Career


The following is an excerpt from the new book American Playbook: A Guide to Winning Back the Country from the Democrats by Clay Travis (Threshold Books/Simon & Schuster).

In the summer of 2020, I had to fight one of the biggest battles of my career.

The Big Ten and Pac 12 were close to deciding it was too dangerous to play college football, and if they canceled their seasons it was believed the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and Big 12 would soon follow suit. And if college football wasn’t played, no other college sport would be played, either.

I decided right then and there I would fight harder for the playing of college football than I’d ever fought for anything in sports. Over the next several months, Outkick, both my radio show and the website, became the most aggressive media outlet in the country to support playing college football. Why was playing college football so important in my opinion?

First, the data was overwhelming that there was no substantial risk to young, healthy players. That was despite the fact that news outlets like CBSSports.com were running hyperventilating pieces claiming that if college football was played at least eight players would die because of Covid. (The actual number of athletes who died from contracting Covid because of sports? Zero.) But the most important data here was that if college football was shut down, many high schools wouldn’t play fall sports and many wouldn’t open at all.

I had regular conversations with Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey during this time. He told me that one of the biggest challenges he faced was how many southern high schools would shut down their seasons if college football wasn’t played. As a public school kid who knew the importance of high school sports to so many in the country, especially to many kids who would otherwise just vanish when it came to schooling, I couldn’t let that happen.

I made the calculated decision to go all in fighting for college football to be played. I was a maniac about it, pulling every political lever I could to influence governors on the issue, and I aggressively used my two biggest platforms, Outkick and my national sports radio morning show, to that end. I got every governor with an SEC, ACC, or Big 12 school in his state I could on the air. We’d never had governors on the radio show before, but I had our staff reach out to all of them in an effort to get them on to publicly support the return of sports.

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We had Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on several times. DeSantis was important because he said that not only did the SEC and ACC schools in his state need to play football, but so did every high school. We also hosted Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt. We put together an entire coalition of red state governors who would all come out in favor of college football being played in their states.

Each of these governors — all with ACC, SEC, and Big 12 schools in their states — came on and endorsed the idea of playing college football in the fall. Each time I would get a governor to publicly endorse playing, I would text Greg Sankey, the SEC’s commissioner, and let him know we had another political supporter keeping the dream of playing the season alive.

I can’t impress upon you enough, by the way, how much I came to respect Sankey. Under immense pressure from the sports media — almost all of whom were convinced the season had to be canceled because it wasn’t safe to play — he stayed calm and reasonable.

Early on in the Covid era, I even called Sankey and told him that he was used to sports media being in favor of sports, but that wasn’t going to be the case now. “You need to tell every president and school athletic director what’s coming. They’re going to get ripped to the high heavens for even considering playing. Get them ready.”

I wasn’t just lobbying to get governors on to endorse playing college football. I also worked as hard as I could to get the biggest asset of all, President Donald Trump, on my radio show to call for sports to be played, too. Years ago, when Trump was elected, I told my wife that one day we’d get him on my sports radio show. I even predicted it on the air. Everyone laughed.

It didn’t seem crazy at all to me, though. After all, Trump was a monster sports fan and we agreed on many overlapping issues of sports and politics, particularly as they pertained to getting sports back under way, which was an important signpost of a return to normalcy in the country.

Then, one day, it happened. After months of lobbying, the time was right for Trump to come on the show and endorse the importance of playing college football.

The night before the interview, when I told my kids the president was coming on the radio show, my middle son said, “That’s awesome. He knows Vince McMahon!” (My boys are big WWE fans.)

I couldn’t sleep the night before the interview. For regular listeners of my sports talk radio show, they all know our phones never worked. I mean, just complete and total tech failure all the time. My biggest fear was that we’d get Trump on the air and then we’d accidentally drop him. Or he wouldn’t be able to hear us. In radio, the tease is what you say as you go to break to try to encourage people to keep listening. That morning my radio tease was “Up next, the president of the United States.”

That’s probably the best radio tease imaginable.

Trump came on the show and said he 100% supported college football being played. But that barely moved the needle. Later that very same day, the Pac 12 officially announced they were canceling their fall season. Shortly thereafter the Big Ten did the same. My stomach sank. After months of fighting, it appeared we were close to losing the battle for college football.

Late in that summer of 2020, after the Big Ten and the Pac 12 had canceled their seasons, SEC commissioner Sankey called me. “I think I’m going to have to cancel the season,” he said. “The only reason I haven’t done it yet is because I just can’t figure out how to do it.”

I encouraged him to hang out for as long as he could and keep up the fight. We just needed, I thought, to get the players to report to campus. Once they got to campus and started practice, and in the South in particular, where college football is religion, it would be nearly impossible to stop the games.

On Outkick and on the radio show we redoubled our efforts. I worked like a maniac, enlisting support wherever I could, fighting harder for college football to be played than I’d ever fought for anything in my professional career. Slowly, we gained allies. The parents of Big Ten football players, it turned out, were furious they weren’t being allowed to play and filed lawsuits challenging the Big Ten’s arbitrary decision to cancel the season.

For most of my career, I’d been an SEC guy, but suddenly I was the most popular media figure in the Big Ten, one of the only media members with a large audience who was willing to fight for football. Our crew was small, but committed. As the football season inched closer, I began to work with the Trump White House, Tim Pataki in particular, to reverse the decision to end the Big Ten football season. We gained momentum, with Trump even getting on the phone with Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren to try to get that conference to reverse its decision.

Heck, I was even involved in strategy sessions with the White House to figure out how to save college football.

But we still needed more allies.

That’s when the players themselves, who had mostly been quiet, suddenly spoke out on social media. Clemson’s star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence; Ohio State’s star quarterback, Justin Fields; and many more players started a let-us-play hashtag on Twitter that went viral.

For months I’d been hearing from players, coaches, and administrators behind the scenes about how badly they all wanted to play, but they’d been afraid of being ripped to shreds by the sports media, who overwhelmingly had opposed a return to play for all sports and spread rampant fear-porn about the deaths that would ensue if sports returned.

Indeed, Mike Gundy, the Oklahoma State football coach, had faced significant censure in May 2020 when he’d suggested his players should return to campus and resume regular workouts. He’d been so vociferously attacked for sharing this opinion that many coaches stayed quiet, afraid of being swarmed by a mob on social media.

Finally, Outkick had public allies.

Slowly, thanks to steadfast leadership from SEC Commissioner Sankey and the players speaking out so loudly, the SEC, the Big 12, and the ACC began to hold the wall. We just needed to reach kickoff and have the games start. Because once the games started I was confident the parents of players in the Big Ten and the Pac 12 would force those conferences back to the football fields, too.

During this time, despite being the most likable and humble person in sports media, I made a lot of enemies in the sports media industry. People who had previously been my friends ripped me in public on social media, and in their articles they wrote about the impossibility of playing football during Covid. Negative articles about me and Outkick piled up. I’ve never been more attacked in my entire career.

But as I said when I started the book, my idol as a kid was Davy Crockett — be sure you’re right and go ahead.

I knew I was right.

And if I’m confident that I’m right, nothing is going to stop me.

I worked hard, harder than I’d ever worked before. I drove the people around me, those working at Outkick, very hard, too, the radio show, everyone. I wasn’t always the nicest version of myself. Sometimes I lost my temper with our workers and lashed out when I thought we weren’t making smart decisions or things weren’t being implemented rapidly enough. I was impatient. There was so much to make happen and it felt like everyone was against us and we didn’t have enough time to do everything we needed to do to make the season happen.

In the late summer of 2020, every day felt like a whirlwind. I barely slept. I was on my phone constantly, running Outkick and all my shows and fighting to save the college football season with every ounce of energy I had.

The players reported to fall camp in the SEC, the Big 12, and the ACC. Kickoff inched closer and closer. In private conversations, Sankey held out hope with me that if smaller college games could kick off and then the NFL kicked off, momentum would carry through and everyone would play.

On August 30, 2020, the first college football game of 2020 kicked off. It was Austin Peay at Central Arkansas.

I watched every minute of the game, luxuriating in the return of football to television.

A month later, on September 26, the SEC kicked off a full slate of conference games. It was nearly a month later than normal, but finally, at long last, the season was under way. The ACC and the Big 12 also kicked off their games.

On opening day, I poured myself a tall glass of whiskey. I’m not ashamed to admit that when kickoff happened in the SEC, I cried. “We did it,” I told my wife. “We really did it.”

Not only did the SEC, the ACC, and the Big 12 play nearly complete seasons, but the Pac 12 and the Big Ten, under immense pressure from their own players, parents, and fan bases as the other conferences were playing, came rushing back to the field, too, even though their teams were only able to play shortened seasons.

And not only was college football played, but not one player or coach suffered serious Covid illness or death as a result. In fact, it didn’t happen anywhere in college athletics. As I’d been arguing all along, football itself was far more dangerous to players than Covid.

Just about every high school in the entire South played football as well. We’ll never know how many kids stayed in school because of those games, but I’m convinced we used sports to help ensure that millions of kids had as close to a normal 2020 school year as possible.

College football being played in 2020 remains my proudest moment in professional life. If Outkick and our radio show hadn’t existed, I’m not sure it would have happened. When there were almost no voices in the entire country advocating for college football, we helped give the necessary space to commissioners, school presidents, athletic directors, coaches, and players to make the season happen.

There are many people all over the country who deserve credit for college sports being played in the fall of 2020, but I’m confident no one in sports media did more than Outkick.

So, again, I will always be immensely proud of what we accomplished.

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