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Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields during the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson, on Dec. 28, 2019. After the Big Ten Conference decided to postpone its fall 2020 season because of COVID-19, Fields started an online petition to get the decision reversed. (AP) Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields during the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson, on Dec. 28, 2019. After the Big Ten Conference decided to postpone its fall 2020 season because of COVID-19, Fields started an online petition to get the decision reversed. (AP)

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields during the Fiesta Bowl against Clemson, on Dec. 28, 2019. After the Big Ten Conference decided to postpone its fall 2020 season because of COVID-19, Fields started an online petition to get the decision reversed. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher August 19, 2020

Senate hopeful Tommy Tuberville fumbles the facts about COVID-19 and football

If Your Time is short

  • It’s not governors but collegiate athletic conferences and universities themselves that are deciding whether their teams play football this fall. 

  • Colleges in a given state can belong to different conferences — so, some might be in conferences that have canceled football, while others are in conferences that have not. 

  • Only 17 states with teams in the top tier of college football have none of those teams playing this fall. That includes 13 states with Democratic governors and four with GOP governors.

College football has become a political football in one of the most competitive U.S. Senate races, with the Republican challenger in Alabama claiming that partisanship explains why the fall season will be played in some states, but not others.

Tommy Tuberville, a former college football coach who had his greatest success at Auburn University in Alabama, is running to unseat Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in the Nov. 3 election.

"It’s embarrassing that even two months before the first game, you have a lot of these states deciding, oh, we’re not going to play football," Tuberville said Aug. 17 on Fox Business. Then he made a statistical claim.

"Let me give you this one stat: 26 of the states that have governors that are Republican, 25 have decided to play football," he said. "Twenty-four states that are Democrats, three-fourths have decided not to play already and most will probably not play. So, politics involved? Yes."

Tuberville’s campaign did not respond to our requests for information to back his claim. But he gets a few things wrong.

It’s not states or their governors that are deciding whether college football will be played this fall. It’s the colleges or the athletic conferences that they belong to, each of which spans multiple states. And Tuberville’s figures are off, too.

A pivotal Senate race

The Alabama race could help determine whether Republicans keep a majority in the Senate, where they now control 53 seats. As of Aug. 17, the race was rated as "lean Republican" by the Cook Political Report.

Jones won a special election in December 2017 for the seat vacated by Republican Jeff Sessions, who became President Donald Trump’s first attorney general.

After Sessions was forced out by Trump in November 2018, he decided to run again for the seat he had held for 20 years. He lost the July primary to Tuberville, who is making his first run for public office.

Decisions made by conferences, not governors

In big-time college football, the kind Tuberville coached in, there are 10 conferences in what is known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, which is considered the most competitive tier.  FBS, formerly known as Division I-A, encompasses more than 100 teams, from big-time programs like Alabama and Ohio State to less prominent ones such as Coastal Carolina in South Carolina and Old Dominion in Virginia. A handful of FBS schools play as independents, unaffiliated with a conference for football.

Four of the FBS conferences — the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the Mid-American and the Mountain West — announced in August they will postpone all fall sports for 2020 because of the coronavirus. 

None of the announcements referred to orders by governors, although some governors have issued orders affecting outdoor gatherings. For example, before the Big Ten canceled fall sports, member school Rutgers University in New Jersey said it would abide by Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy’s order limiting outdoor gatherings to 500 people (Rutgers had a major COVID-19 outbreak among its football players.) 

In South Carolina, Republican Gov. Henry McMaster has warned that he will not lift an executive order that bans large gatherings, such as spectator sports and concerts, until the COVID-19 situation improves. No South Carolina colleges play in the four FBS conferences that have canceled fall football.

Old Dominion (Conference USA) and the University of Connecticut, which left the American Athletic Conference in July to become an independent in football, have unilaterally canceled their fall football seasons.

Featured Fact-check

The decision by the Big Ten led one of its star football players, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, to launch a "We Want to Play" online petition on Aug. 16. It gained more than 200,000 signatures on its first day.

Tuberville was specifically asked in the Fox Business interview whether Fields’ petition has a chance to succeed. That’s when he responded with his claim about the governors. 

The petition, however, is directed not at governors, but at the Big Ten commissioner and the athletic directors and university presidents of the conference’s member schools. 

Conferences overlap state boundaries

The other six FBS conferences — SEC, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, American Athletic, Sun Belt and Conference USA — still plan to play football this fall.

So as things now stand, in Ohio, which has a Republican governor, Ohio State won’t play; neither will six Ohio teams in the Mid-American Conference. But college football is still scheduled to be played at the University of Cincinnati, for example, which is in the American Athletic Conference. 

There are other examples:

  • Pennsylvania, Democratic governor: Penn State (Big Ten) won’t play, but Temple (American Athletic) and Pitt (ACC) will. 

  • Maryland, Republican governor: The University of Maryland (Big Ten) won’t play, but Navy (American Athletic) will.

  • Iowa (Republican governor): University of Iowa (Big Ten) won’t play; Iowa State (Big 12) will.

Finally, Tuberville’s numbers don’t add up.

Based on a tally by Sporting News and a map by Stadium Network, there are only 17 states that don’t have at least one FBS team scheduled to play football this fall.

Thirteen of them have Democratic governors: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin.

Four have Republican governors: Arizona, Idaho, Nebraska and Wyoming.

Our ruling

Tuberville said that amid COVID-19, 25 of the 26 Republican governors "have decided to play football," but "three-fourths" of the 24 Democratic governors "have decided not to play already and most will probably not play."

Collegiate athletic conferences and some universities — not governors or states — are deciding whether their teams will play football this fall. Tuberville’s figures are also wrong.

We rate his statement False.

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Senate hopeful Tommy Tuberville fumbles the facts about COVID-19 and football

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