On any given Ohio highway or back road, one might drive by one of the state's Bicentennial Barns.
The barns, painted in 2003, generally have a large painting of the state map on a broad side. Several are adorned with Ohio's slogan, too. It's simple.
"Ohio, the heart of it all."
The shape of that heart might as well be a football. Now, the state has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 vs. football debate in the United States, and that heightened with Gov. Mike DeWine's decision Tuesday to allow high school football to continue in 2020.
Ohioans can draw the most obvious conclusion from there.
Ohio high schools playing football— Bill Bender (@BillBender92) August 18, 2020
Ohio State not playing football
Should go over well here
That's the contradiction Ohioans will never be able to comprehend if it plays out that way.
Ohio State — a top-five national championship contender — was the program most affected by the Big Ten's decision last week to cancel football for the fall. That's why Ryan Day was pitching spring football less than 24 hours later.
It's why Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields — a 2019 Heisman Trophy finalist — is leading a petition that is closing in on 300,000 signatures.
This cause is close to my heart - please sign: https://t.co/yFKlYE7pP0— Justin Fields (@justnfields) August 16, 2020
It's why Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade's father Randy is flying to Chicago to meet with the Big Ten brass this week.
See ya "Early Friday Morning" We gotta Fight and we can't let these young men FIGHT ALONE.... ALL BIG TEN FANS STAND UP.... pic.twitter.com/qjbaQVcRSX— Randy L Wade % f@❌ℹLy..... (@gslsff) August 18, 2020
Fields and Wade don't have to play another down of college football in order to be first-round picks in the 2021 NFL Draft. It's the fact that they are leading the charge to play in the fall that speaks to just how much the sport means in the state.
It's amplified now that DeWine — who was one of the more proactive governors when the COVID-19 epidemic broke out in the United States — made the decision to allow Ohio high schools to continue playing football. As of Tuesday, Ohio had an estimated 110,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, which ranks 15th in the United States.
High school football is huge, too, a big reason why the Buckeyes don't play on Friday night often. Pickerington Central High School — last year's Division I state champion — opens its season against rival Pickerington North on ESPN on Aug. 30. That's in less than two weeks.
That game, of course, will be tempered because five-star Pickerington North defensive end Jack Saywer will not be playing. He made the decision to opt out of the high school season and prepare for his career at Ohio State.
Sawyer made the best decision for him, and it's the right one.
Those case-by-case decisions about how the sport continues in Ohio will continue to evolve in the coming weeks and serve as the barometer for the rest of the nation.
There are multiple factors at play.
It's about safety. This will be the test to see whether football — from the high school level to the youth levels — can be played safely during the COVID-19 pandemic. DeWine seems confident it can be done. If that is the case, then why did the Mid-American Conference — a conference that has six member institutions in Ohio — become the first FBS conference to cancel college football? It's a legitimate question.
That's the value decision for parents at every level, but in Ohio that push for football will continue.
It's also about economics. Ohio State is one of college football's three $200 million revenue machines, according to USA Today. The other two are Texas and Texas A&M — and we know how serious the football is in Texas.
Yet the only FBS school still playing in Ohio is Cincinnati. Hamilton County has the third-most confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, and the Cincinnati Reds are not playing Tuesday because a player tested positive.
It's about politics, too. Big Ten politics have been the topic du jour in college football, and the push by Ohio State's players is part of the growing movement in the sport. DeWine's decision will get attention on the national level, too, and him being a Republican will be a talking point.
After all, Ohio is always one of the most pivotal states in presidential elections. The last time a president was elected without winning Ohio was in 1960 — and that's one of only two instances since 1900.
All that blends into the uncertainty of what September and the fall will bring in the Rust Belt state and the football debates that will determine the pulse of the state in November.
Those debates might just be determined by how many football teams are still playing at that time. The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals should be among them (it's OK that it took this long to get to them). The high schools plan to be, too.
The question in the moment, however, is whether Ohio State really does have a pulse.
If that somehow changes, then you will know everything really is headed in the right direction.