Football is religion in the South, to borrow the cliche. And a certain sect of fans and the establishment have always tried to separate that religion from politics.

But that’s a tall order in 2020. Politics affects whether games can be safely played. Players and coaches wrestle with systemic racism and police brutality. The president of the United States uses sports as… well a political football. And a former football coach is pursuing a seat in the United States Senate.

This week on the Reckon Interview, we are discussing the politics of football. The historic movements led by athletes, and the slow change of major institutions like the SEC and NCAA.

We speak with John Talty, Senior Sports Editor for AL.com and head of their SEC Insider brand, and Kiese Laymon, author of the highly acclaimed memoir Heavy and an English professor at the University of Mississippi.

They explain where athletes and coaches fit in broader social movements. How football may have changed for good. And the work that still needs to be done to advance the ball.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation with John Talty to get you started. And check back tomorrow for excerpts from our discussion with Kiese Laymon. But you can go ahead and listen to the whole conversation here.

And go ahead and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Acast or wherever else you get your podcasts to stay informed about the South this election season.

John Talty on why sports writers can’t just ‘stick to sports’

If politicians are going to continue to insert themselves in sports, there’s no way of covering what we do in college football right now without mentioning these things. When the president personally involves himself in trying to get Big Ten football back; when you have governors in states across the country either publicly advocating for sports to come back or making decisions at the high school level about not having high school football this fall, or making decisions as to how many fans can attend games this fall.

We’ve seen a lot more government and politician involvement than what we typically have when it comes to college football. I mean, it’s impossible. There’s no way, you can really stick to only sports because there’s so much overlap right now.

And you hit on the Black Lives Matter movement. I mean, certainly, that’s a politicized issue. Certainly, there are people who support it. There are people who are very against it. It’s a hot button issue, as we would say, and there’s some people that probably don’t want to see coverage of it, but are you not going to cover Nick Saban leading a march on it? Are you not going to cover Alabama football players speaking out about it? I mean, it’s become a situation where in order to do our jobs properly, we have to write about these things, we have to talk about these things.

I think that does frustrate some sports fans who look at sports as kind of this safe space where they don’t have to think about the rest of the world. But, again, when we have our president personally trying to get involved in college football, there’s really no way of avoiding it anymore.

John Talty on whether the actions taken by coaches are genuine

You just have to look at it on a case by case basis. I think Nick Saban has been very genuine when he has weighed in on these topics. It seems to come from a very smart, logical perspective.

Some people probably are doing it just because they know they have to and there’s a recruiting component. I think you can look back to after the George Floyd situation, and we started seeing protests pop up across America. The statements and comments that coaches made after that kind of ran the gamut. You saw some people come from a very genuine place. Some people come from a really touching place. Other people you saw, essentially put out cookie cutter statements, you know, “let’s quote Martin Luther King, talk about how we all need to talk together. Boom. Tweet it out. Done.” And so it just it’s all kind of over the place.

I think that Auburn AD Allen Greene has done a great job of speaking on it. I think [Auburn Coach] Gus [Malzahn], especially early on did a very good job talking about it. You mentioned Lane Kiffin who I think has been out in front at Ole Miss. We’ve seen [Tennessee Coach] Jeremy Pruitt do things.

It’s kind of all over the place but I think for the most part, especially when at a lot of these schools, the majority of the players are Black, that they kind of have to understand those issues in order to be able to reach their players and reach their team. And I think you’re seeing predominantly white head coaches really kind of try to do some learning and try to better understand what’s going on. And I think for the most part, at least, people are genuine and trying to better understand the issue.

John Talty on the rising influence of players

I think, ultimately, we’re seeing a rise in influence of the players. But I don’t think we’ve seen them go all the way yet. The biggest thing that would happen, in my opinion, is if a bunch of them banded together and said they were going to boycott the season. I think that would probably accomplish the most for them, if they were to do that. If Trevor Lawrence and Clemson all decided, “you know what, we’re just not going to play this year.”

But ultimately, that’s one of those things where it would be a short term loss for all those players for potentially a long term win. And when you have a limited window in college as it is, it’s very hard for them to actually do that.

It’s easy for people like me to say, “hey, this would accomplish a lot,” but if you’re Trevor Lawrence and this is your last year of college football, like, it’s hard to potentially give that all up for, you know, a greater cause.

So, I think you’re gonna see more and more players though exerting their influence. I think they’ve realized in the last, you know, four or five months that they have a lot more power than they maybe originally realized. And, you know, they can continue to exert that in different areas, but I still think that there’s still a long way to go. I mean, we all kind of know that players still aren’t being paid. And until we start accomplishing some of those things, there’s still a lot that can be done.

John Talty on Tommy Tuberville

He’s always been a pretty good quote. He is in the grand scheme of things, an average football coach, I guess you could say. He has done some sketchy things along the way. I mean, clearly the pine box comment is pretty infamous. What he did at Texas Tech, I think was pretty embarrassing, honestly. He’s at a recruit dinner with a bunch of recruits and then you know, takes a call and decides to accept the head coaching job in Cincinnati and leaves without even telling the recruits at the dinner.

I mean, I think that kind of speaks to who Tommy is. And so he’s going to pander to his base. He’s going to tell you what you want to hear. And he’ll probably end up winning in the state of Alabama. But do I think he is going to be a notable senator? No, because I think he’s not someone who has shown an ability to work with other people, which is pretty important once you actually get to DC.

To hear more from John Talty about how SEC schools are handling the Covid-19 pandemic, the role of Mississippi players in changing the state flag and more, listen to the full episode here.