LSU coach Ed Orgeron told the roundtable of White House officials that the United States needs football, and Vice President Mike Pence applauded.
Orgeron continued in earnest. From his seat inside Tiger Stadium, he spoke of the professional opportunities his players would lose from a canceled season due to the coronavirus pandemic. He spoke of the steps LSU has taken to sterilize its facilities and test its members, of the pre-planned protocol that helped quell a spike of cases when some players went to a party.
He said "this can be handled."
"I don't think we can take this away from our players, take this away from our state and our country," Orgeron said. "We need football. Football is the lifeblood of our country."
The Larose native's political voice has picked up clout in recent years. He befriended Gov. John Bel Edwards and has spoken at several functions. President Donald Trump attended two LSU football games in 2019 and called Orgeron after the Tigers beat Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl. The two met when LSU visited the White House in January after winning the national championship.
Orgeron and Tiger Stadium provided a fitting backdrop Tuesday for a symbol of unity between a college athletic program and a presidential administration that has been persistent on reopening schools and playing sports while cases of COVID-19 in the nation have soared to an all-time high.
The day also showed how many different factors are at play: the Southeastern Conference separately announced it was postponing the start of volleyball, soccer and cross country competitions until at least Sept. 1 — a decision that spells trouble for the fate of the football season.
Pence, the chairman of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, traveled to Baton Rouge to speak with higher education leaders and encouraged Louisiana to reopen K-12 schools and its colleges for in-person instruction.
There were 58,858 new cases of COVID-19 and 351 deaths reported nationally on Monday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and, on Tuesday, Louisiana reported 2,215 new cases and 22 deaths.
The CDC is expected to issue a five-part series of recommendations to schools this week, which will include outlines on how to return to school safely. Pence said "we don't want CDC guidance to be a reason why people don't reopen their schools."
The guidance may be the reason why the SEC might decide to alter its football season. League commissioner Greg Sankey told ESPN's Paul Finebaum Monday afternoon "we're going to look at facts."
"We have to see a change in public health trend to build the comfort that we'll have an opportunity to compete this fall," Sankey said.
Pence said the federal government's increased aid with testing and personal protective equipment will help foster the reopening of schools, mentioning the surge testing sites that opened last week in Baton Rouge.
Pence said he is "very confident" that universities can "develop plans to safely reopen campuses and restart sports programs."
"And as Coach O and I discussed today, I think it's important," Pence said. "It's important, not just for the student-athletes not just for schools like LSU, but it's important for America. I don't have to tell all the SEC fans in the room that the American people love football. We love our sports. And we all are prepared to work with athletic directors, with universities around the country to make sure that they have the support, the resources and the guidance to move forward."
The presence of on-campus classes and the fate of college athletics have been linked, if only by their shared status under the same institutions.
Harvard and Princeton both announced last week that it would conduct mostly online classes in the fall, and the Ivy League later announced it is postponing its fall sports until the spring.
Rutgers announced last week it would also feature mostly online courses, and, later that week, the Big Ten Conference became the first major college league to alter its football schedule — followed by the Pac-12 — and cancel its nonconference games and play league games only.
The SEC's decision to delay its volleyball, soccer and cross country seasons until September builds a timeline that allows the league to buy more time and leave its football season untouched while it studies health trends over the next few weeks.
It's a similar decision to the Atlantic Coast Conference's announcement last Thursday to delay its fall Olympic sports until at least Sept. 1. The SEC, the Big 12 and the ACC leaderships are unified in thinking the Big Ten acted too soon.
Sankey pegged "late July" as the time for the SEC to make an ultimate decision, and told Finebaum "the fact that we've seen increasing cases over the last few weeks over our region is not a positive indicator."
Orgeron has continued to advocate for a football season. His speech at the roundtable echoed what he told 104.5 ESPN's "Off the Bench" on Tuesday morning.
"I'll say this again," Orgeron said. "This is not my decision but it's my own personal opinion: We need to play football. I can't wait to play football. We need this season, and I think we are going to play."
The fallout of cancellations throughout college football could be substantial. Football is the crown jewel of college athletic budgets, and losses in millions of dollars could lead to massive cuts. Draft-eligible players could take hits on financial futures with no games to increase their stock.
LSU has already began a scaled return to team activities, under NCAA guidelines, and, starting July 24, teams can start holding walk-through practices with footballs and in-person meetings.
The reigning national champions' season is scheduled to open on Sept. 5 against UT-San Antonio in Tiger Stadium, and LSU athletic director Scott Woodward said the department is still proceeding as if that game is going to be played.
Now that the SEC's August competitions in volleyball, soccer and cross country have been canceled, it appears there are no more buffers left.
“The reality is we are not where we need to be with regard to the spread of COVID-19 to safely compete as scheduled for now," Woodward said in a statement. "I cannot stress enough how important it is for all of us to take seriously public health recommendations to keep our communities safe.”