Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Return of King Football

  I’ve been onsite at a bank for the past few months. The bankers are a friendly enough group but I rarely see them talk much about non-bank stuff until last week when groups started getting together in clusters to loudly voice their opinions. The subject of this new-found collegiality wasn’t the upcoming Iowa elections or the spate of beheadings in the Middle East or the record highs of the stock market or even what the new Apple iWatch looks like. What brought these bankers together is the same matter of vital national importance that brings people together in workplaces all over America this time of the year – the return of football.

  King football has made its 2014 fall debut two weeks ago in all its varieties. The Marshalltown High School football team won their opening game 41-0 over Waterloo East which equaled their win total from 2013. That win was followed by a 45-20 loss to Newton to even their record at 1-1. The Bobcats will play 11 games this season and if they manage to finish fourth or better in their 6 team division will make the Iowa High School Football Playoffs. The loose playoff requirements provide hope to all but the worst high school football teams – the 1-11 Bobcats headed into their final game with a chance to make the playoffs if they could have just won their last game. Now that the games have begin there has been no mention of Blair Van Staauldine, the player who made national headlines when he was suspended for the first three games of the season after being pictured on social media making a 'W' with his hands.

  The National Football League season started this past Thursday with the Seattle Seahawks beginning their defense of last season’s Super Bowl with a 36-16 crushing of the Green Bay Packers. The start of the season must come as a welcome relief to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell who has been in for an unaccustomed heavy dose of criticism this summer. After levying a two game suspension for Ray Rice when he was arrested for domestic violence and a video released by TMZ showed him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator, Goodell and the NFL was pilloried in the press for imposing a sentence only half the length routinely handed out to substance abusers. Goodell bowed to the pressure by publicly saying he got the suspension wrong, but when a group of US Senators sent a letter to the Commissioner with the veiled threat of congressional action, Goodell announced new penalties of a six game suspension for first time domestic abusers with a life time ban (reversible at the commissioner’s discretion) for a second offense. No sooner had the interest in this issue receded, TMZ published video from inside the elevator showing Rice dropping his fiancée with a left that would do Mike Tyson proud. This has caused the Ravens to terminate Rice’s contract and the NFL to issue a lifetime ban. Even though all criminal charges will be dismissed if he completes a ‘diversion’ program I doubt any other team will be willing to pick up Rice and the media storm that will come along with him even if the lifetime ban would ever be lifted.

  If that was the NFL’s only public relations nightmare it would likely have been marked down as a successful summer in the league’s corporate offices, but the league has been hit with a new wave of lawsuits following the recent multimillion dollar settlement of the concussion lawsuit brought on by former players. This year NFL teams have been accused of illegally giving their players painkillers and narcotics from 1968 to 2008 without regard to their long-term health. No matter the outcome of the lawsuits, the continual interviews of the stars of yesteryear talking about the number of pain killing injections will be a perpetual black eye for the NFL for the entire season.

  The NFL’s other perpetual black eye is the public outrage over the Washington Redskins' team nickname, which is being seen as offensive by more and more people with momentum growing in the calls the team to change its name. In May Redskin owner Dan Snyder vowed to ‘never’ change the name of his team and has resisted all pressure and threats to make him do otherwise. Snyder has proven to be an exceptionally poor owner with only three playoff teams and eight head coaches in his 16 years at the Redskin helm. But Snyder is an exceptional businessman ironically making his billions in the advertising field and increased Redskins’ revenue by luring big name advertisers like Coke, Budweiser, and the $207 million dollars paid by Federal Express to rename ‘Redskins Stadium’ as ‘FedEx Field’. With many media outlets refusing to use the ‘Redskin’ name, increasing boycotts of his team and sponsors, and a 35% decrease in the sales of Redskin merchandise, I expect Snyder will soon put some of his millions to work by paying a public relations firm to come up with a new name and logo for his team so he can get rid of his bad publicity and cash in on the merchandise dollars his new logo will bring him.

  In Iowa the NFL is popular and every town loves their high school team but around these parts the college football Iowa Hawkeyes and Iowa State Cyclones ARE football. While a few of the bankers that are Chicago Bears fans took some ribbing because of the team’s home loss to the lowly Buffalo Bills on opening weekend, everyone was discussing Saturday’s Hawkeye comeback and the instant replay snafu that seemed to give the Cyclone’s opponent a touchdown late in the first half. The conversations were all civil but the passion heated up as Cyclone and Hawkeye fans compared opinions on who would win this weekend’s annual contest between the two teams.

  When I set up my monthly youth chess tournament for this Saturday, I was warned that this was the weekend of the BIG Iowa – Iowa State football game. I’ve scheduled a tournament for this date in the past and while there is only a small impact on attendance there are plenty of parents in the parking lot listening to the game on the radio and updating the rest of us after each score, fumble, interception, or if the coach sneezes or a quarterback walks back to the huddle with a limp. The Friday before the game has been a de-facto company holiday at all my jobs in Iowa for the past 20 years, with cookouts and pot lucks and employees encouraged to wear their team’s colors as if we were street thugs that had to decide what gang we were going to be part of.

  Both teams have been less than impressive in the early part of the season although their results have been as different as they can be. In the first week of the season both teams took on opponents from the ‘minor league’ FCS. The Cyclones hosted the top ranked FCS team the North Dakota State Bisons and took a 14-0 lead before allowing the Bisons to score the next 34 points on their way to a 34-14 Cyclone loss. The Hawkeyes played the 12th ranked FCS University of Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes fell behind 10-7 in the first half but retook the lead by half time and held on for a 31-23 victory. What is the difference between the major league FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) and the minor league FCS (Football Championship Subdivision)? FBS teams like Iowa and Iowa State are allowed to give out 85 scholarships for football while the FCS schools are limited to 63 scholarships. FBS schools also share in the lucrative college bowls and the upcoming playoff revenue and the members of the FBS power conferences (like Iowa State of the Big 12 and Iowa in of the Big 10) collect millions of additional dollars from their conferences TV networks. Just compare their athletic budgets. North Dakota State has an athletic budget of $15 million, Iowa State $60 million, The University of Iowa $84 million, and the University of Northern Iowa $13 million. Yet even with these advantages low-level FBS schools like Iowa State regularly lose to their FCS little brothers and mid-level FBS schools like Iowa have great difficulty defeating the minor leagues of college football.

  Last week, Iowa took on mid-level FBS school Ball State in Iowa City while Iowa State hosted Big 12 conference rival Kansas State. Ball State has been on a roll over the last two years winning nine games in 2012 (losing to the University of Central Florida in the Beef O’Brady’s Bowl) and ten games in 2013 (losing to Arkansas State in the Bowl). Ball State played a fine game against the Hawkeyes and led by 10 points with three minutes left before surrendering two touchdowns within 30 seconds to lose 17-13. Hawkeye fans were relieved at the win and pessimistic for the rest of the season after two narrow wins against teams that they judge to be decidedly inferior.

  The Kansas State Wildcats have all the advantages of being in a power conference that the Iowa State Cyclones have along with the same disadvantages of being in a sparsely populated state with little local football talent to draw from and limited local radio and TV possibilities. But while the Cyclones have won more games than they’ve lost three times in the past twenty years, the Wildcats have had 13 winning seasons over the same span including nine seasons of ten wins or more (the Cyclones have never won ten in a season). The Cyclones started fast and led 28-13 with a minute to go in the first half but allowed Kansas State to score the last 19 points of the game to lose 32-28.

  Cyclone fans have already begun their annual litany of excuses for their two losses in what looks like another disastrous season: an iffy call against Kansas State, their starting center being injured early in the North Dakota State game, the misfortune of having the FCS champion Bisons on their schedule instead of a creampuff team, no easy games in the tough Big 12 conference, etc…, etc…,etc… From an outsider’s view point I see head coach Paul Rhoads has had the following won loss record over the past five years : 7-6, 6-7, 6-7, 5-7, and 3-9 (here is the complete list) and see something is obviously missing in the area of recruiting, game management, game planning, leadership or some combination of these. The Cyclones have pulled some huge upsets under Rhoads' tenure – they beat Nebraska and Texas on the road and defeated a #2 ranked Oklahoma State team in a nationally televised game a few years back – but have never been able to establish themselves as even a middle of the road team in their own conference. The upsets and Rhoads fiery post game speeches after them have gained him far more national notoriety than his team’s records warrant and gained him the long term support of the fans and athletic department - all I see is a team that every other team looks forward to playing and a fan base that accepts playing just good enough to lose.

  The Cyclones will bring their 0-2 record to Iowa City to play the 2-0 Hawkeyes this weekend which will culminate another week of workplace dress-up, tailgating, and smack talk. While the Hawkeyes haven’t played especially well they have played well enough to win which is a quality I always find more impressive than playing well enough to lose like the Cyclones. Whenever I point out the Cyclones’ shortcomings they always seem to pull off one of their signature upsets and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them win this week but I’m not counting on it. What I am counting on is hearing plenty of talk about the game at work next Monday.