News Story

Whitmer's Football Flip-Flops Look Like Politics Not 'Science'

Initially against it, governor reversed course after presidential politics entered the mix

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has attracted nationwide attention with her evolving views on COVID-19 and college football.

Whitmer has repeatedly insisted her COVID-19 responses have all been based on science and facts, not politics, but the governor's flip-flops on football have led some to speculate her real focus is the upcoming presidential election.

The newly-explosive mix of politics and football has come to the fore with decisions about whether Big Ten football would be played this fall.

Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin are all considered swing states in the presidential election. All host Big Ten football teams. Standing in the way of a Big Ten football season allowed Whitmer to be cast as a villain, while President Donald Trump was working to save it.

“This entire mess may come down to a fight between President Trump and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is opposed to high school and college football being played in her state this fall. Whitmer would have to change her mind to let Michigan and Michigan State participate. Politics and football,” freelance reporter Jeff Snook posted Sept. 1 on Facebook.

Snook, who has broken several stories on Ohio State football, had earlier reported on Aug. 19 that Whitmer was standing in the way of Big Ten efforts to salvage the college football season.

“I also was also told that one roadblock to the new plan is the fact that Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer has been vehemently opposed to football being played – at the high school and college level – in the state this fall,” Snook reported on Aug. 19.

Several websites reported on Snook’s post.

In the months before this media reports indicated Whitmer was opposed to playing football.

On June 30, the Detroit News reported that Whitmer wanted the Michigan High School Athletic Association to consider moving high school football to the spring.

“I’m also calling on the Michigan High School Athletic Association to consider postponing fall sports that have the impossibility of social distancing that’s a part of them; consider moving those to the spring and running some of the more individualized sports like track and field or tennis or golf to the fall,” Whitmer said.

And when the Big Ten initially announced it would not play football this fall, Whitmer approved. "I was glad that the Big Ten took the leadership role that they did," she aid on Aug. 24, according to MLive. "Obviously they've got huge universities and they've got people who are on all of these campuses that are working to try to address the COVID pandemic that we're all struggling with."

“Football is a very intimate sport where you are up in one another’s faces,” Whitmer added. “That’s what makes it inherently risky, so that’s my concern. I love football. I wanted to be a sports broadcaster. I don’t like not seeing football this fall, but I’m glad that the Big Ten took the leadership they did and the (Michigan) High School Sports Association did as well.”

But on Sept. 3 Jeff Snook authored a Facebook post implying Whitmer was then in the process of changing her mind on football, due to presidential politics.

“Well, well. Look who just had a change of heart in the past few minutes. I guess Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who just gave the go-ahead for high school sports, although her executive order makes no mention of intercollegiate athletics, may fear what would happen on Nov. 3 if she had stuck to her guns,” Snook wrote.

Whitmer did reverse course and lift her ban on high school football this fall – but against the advice of her own state health director.

“Based on current data, contact sports create a high risk of COVID-19 transmission and MDHHS strongly recommends against participating in them at this time,” said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, Michigan’s chief medical executive, on Sept. 3. “We are not out of the woods yet. COVID-19 is still a very real threat to our families.”

Nevertheless, on the day after coronavirus outbreaks caused the the Ingham County Health Department ordered a mandatory quarantine for some East Lansing student house rentals, sororities and fraternities, Whitmer announced that she approved the Big Ten’s decision to go ahead with playing college football. East Lansing is home to Michigan State University.

"I know the Big Ten has been studying the issue, I know that they've got some of the best experts on their campuses, I know the advancements that have been made in terms of testing have given them some greater confidence that they can engage in a truncated season, safely," Whitmer said, according to the Detroit News. And so I support the decision that they've made. That's not my decision to make, it is theirs, and they will move forward."

Both political parties have used football as a talking point.

In late August TV ads, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden blamed Trump for sporting event cancellations, according to The Hill.

But on Sept. 16 Politico headline announced, “Big Ten Revives Football Season In Trump-Backed Turnaround.”

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.