The Un-United State of College Football (Northwestern’s Union Dilemma)

The Psychology of Unity could be quite informative for Northwestern amidst their quandry

College athletics are at a crossroads and these roads are currently converging in Evanston, IL

By David Hauser

What do you do when the young people—schooled by a society hungry to teach unity, teamwork, and togetherness via the lessons from coaches and wins/losses in teams sports, and further empowered by the scholarships and education afforded to them by their play—harness all these teachings and join together to challenge the very system that insisted upon their need to internalize the value of teamwork in the first place?

This is the paradoxical quandary Northwestern University (along with the entire college athletics system) is left to sit with following the landmark decision from the NLRB Chicago regional office suggesting Northwestern football players have the right to unionize as a collective labor group.

Team sports are the training ground for where many of us learn to work in groups and unite toward common goals with one another.  As a psychologist working on both ends of the developmental spectrum, with parents and kids, I see more smiles and faces light up when talking about their Saturday mornings on the field with teammates (or sidelines with fellow parents), than of just about any other experience.  Sports, at their very best, are community.

Nowhere is this more visible than in college sports (especially college football), which inspires a brand of zealotry, passion, and connection among Americans to a degree not seen in any other sports landscape.  Regions develop and exhibit an entire collective identity based upon their football conference–brace yourself for an overdose of cocksureness if you ever dare engage a Southerner by suggesting any degree of ambiguity within the hierarchy of college football conferences (PSST-they may have a few strong opinions about the SEC).

In a historical era where organized religion attendance shrinks and the middle class work day expands (subsequently reducing opportunities for social gathering), more and more of our precious opportunity for communion is housed within stadium parking lot tailgates, high school homecoming pep rallies, and Saturday mornings at the little league field.  Our children are coached and encouraged to form and grow together as one unit, their fans band together around them in support, and within sports a primal need for togetherness is offered to a spiritually hungry group of people finding fewer and fewer outlets and time for union.

Within a sea of contradictions, there are two prominent bits of irony within this developing dilemma; a dilemma that will likely take a decade to sort through.  First is that we teach our kids to form groups via sports, revere them for when they develop a collective mastery upon the field, and then the moment they begin to a form a brand of unity off the field that is inconvenient for the broader system, they are admonished.

Second, Northwestern houses one of the few athletic departments in all of college sports delivering on a greater mission for its student-athletes rather than just banking wins for its boosters.[1]  Peter Ohr, the director of the Chicago regional NLRB, noted in his summary that Northwestern players have a cumulative grade point average of 3.024 and a 97 percent graduation rate, the latter of which is the highest of any top-tier football team in the country.  Led by athletic director Jim Phillips and head football coach Pat Fitzgerald, the NU athletic department is one of the rare bastions in college sports that attempts to provide the character building scaffolding for its athletes that amateurism from yesteryear purported to offer.  In many ways, while this has the feel of “no deed goes unpunished,” this departmental and university community strength might precisely be what makes Northwestern the perfect Petri dish for this ambitious unionizing social experiment.

In 1914, when Frederic Goudy was charged with task of designing a font for the University logo and brand[2] he designed the still currently utilized official typeface in a design he described as straightforward, self-assured, unpretentious, and inherently Midwestern for this is what he felt Northwestern represented.  The main campus sitting on the northern border of Chicago, in the leafy, intellectually curious town of Evanston, Illinois, and upon the shore of Lake Michigan, expresses a concert between the past historical scholarship the university is built upon and the modern cutting edge science it forges via its blend of old-world gothic architecture and the strong, sturdy lines of its modern, steel and glass towers.

The University bounds itself by the motto “Quaecumque Sunt Vera,” whatsoever things are true.  It is a university community that prides itself on remaining strong and free-thinking enough to hold two conflicting truths at the same time.  While this might be the type of academic branding that would melt the heart of a Dead Poet’s Society aficionado, surely University administration have had their moments in the weeks following the Ohr’s decision asking themselves, “really, how serious were these founders in aligning themselves with this dastardly ambitious motto?”  For the Northwestern community is now positioned to bear a pairing of inextricably complicated truths as the result of the NLRB decision.

In one cauldron is the truth that college sports are one of the most profitable industries in America, generating tens of billions of dollars a year, yet the talent and labor that drives this industry is unpaid.  On a separate plane exists the truth that amateurism within collegiate athletics has a rich history in America, dating back over a century, which permits a pureness and sanctity within campus teams that could otherwise be stained and complicated by money and compensation.

Large and entrenched systems tend to be stubborn with change and as a result problems like this tend to get punted down the line to smaller systems to figure out, in this case private universities.  In what would appear to be yet another bit of cruel irony for Northwestern administrators, the university marketing team rolled out 2014 with the “We will…” campaign, brandishing countless purple flags up and down Sheridan Road with a smattering of different leadership taglines to be taken on by the NU community and alumni, most notably “We Will. For Campus and Community.”  True to their brand new purple flags, the university has now been nominated to find a reasonable “middle truth” with the grand daddy of ‘em all when it comes to college athletic dilemmas, as The Atlantic forcefully and eloquently communicated in 2011.  Perhaps this is the optimal moment to cue Ben Stein in his Ferris Buehler’s Day Off performance academically droning, “paging…any leaders…any leaders interested in this one?? Anyone…anyone??”

Northwestern's community is taking on College Football's greatest dilemma

Northwestern’s community is taking on College Football’s most entrenched dilemma

One such leader who has emerged is Northwestern University senior Quarterback Kain Colter.  Colter, with the aid and guidance of former UCLA linebacker and current labor organizer, Ramogi Huma, forged a grassroots effort throughout the Fall 2013 college football season that branded the hashtag #APU, “All Players United.”  This leadership tandem then formed the College Athletics Player Association (CAPA) in early 2014 and are now beginning the steep climb toward challenging the very idea of whether college athletics embody even a semblance of a notion of “amateurism” as it once represented.

In the 1930s, way back when Ivy League colleges had formidable football teams, the fields of organizational and social psychology began to emerge.  Famed organizational psychologist Kurt Lewin in constructing new theory on groups and organization in the workplace posited, “a person who has learned to see how much his own fate depends upon the fate of his entire group will be eager to take over a fair share of responsibility for its welfare.”  Civilizations dating back to the ancients have drawn from the same basic learnings of the power of group for survival—we are all in this together.  Unity, forming groups to protect one’s self and each other, feeds primal emotional and psychological needs and permits greater individual safety.

Colter, no stranger to psychology, as is his major on the Evanston campus, has spent his senior year at Northwestern following quite closely to Dr. Lewin’s playbook.  Colter spent the last two seasons as the Wildcats unequivocal front man—a pure and slashing athlete in the mold of Hines Ward and Antwaan Randel El.  On field he was asked to perform the unusual task in the modern game to embody an adaptability to throw, run, and catch—lining up across the field as quarterback, option pitchman, and wide receiver, giving Big 10 opponents fits with his versatility.

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It’s been Colter’s versatility off the field that has the sports world eyeing him

It has been Colter’s versatility off the field–stepping into a leadership role for the fate of his group–that has left the sports world’s collective jaw agape and with the potential of radically changing the entire college sports community.

America seems to place a pride in our amateur athletics, perhaps even a defensiveness.  There seems to be a collective belief that as a capitalist society we need to still maintain a few sacred venues that are not driven by the bottom line.  It is as though we must maintain at least some vessels that provide the next generation essential ingredients and values that are of character building substance.  In theory, amateurism in its purest form can develop and internalize the values of camaraderie, community, and togetherness and does not require financial reward as a motivating force.

Colter and CAPA, however, have raised the question as to whether amateurism still exists in a tangible form as it once did way back when the T-formation was a progressive offensive on-field strategy.  Supporting their argument is the data on contemporary TV consumption habits along with the financial ledgers of college athletics departments.

To give an example from the department of “just the tip of the iceberg,” the 2014 BCS Championship game received an astronomical 15.8 Nielsen rating. This type of rating is unheard these days, as media consumption has become more and more niche with the advent of so many new forums for disseminating content.  In this new era of content consumption, an age dominated by social media, on-demand viewing, and DVRs, it is a proverbial cold war arms race for networks and cable companies to hoard “live event” content.  Sports cannot be chopped up into small bits and pieces of on demand content, they are only relevant as live events, aired with commercials (being the financially operative piece of this equation).

Giving credence to this new TV model, the L.A. Dodgers were sold in 2012 for over $2 billion (a valuation never seen before in any American sports team) largely because the new ownership group was well aware that Time Warner Cable was around the corner to provide them $8.25 billion in a new TV deal.

Sporting events are the one holdout to the new age of media and in many ways are driving the entire business model for cable companies.  In other words, college football is like an endlessly tall stack of briefcases piled high and filled with gold bullion.  Yet, the system is asking the student-athlete to hold tight and revel in college football as a sacred and pure amateur format as though it is post-war 1949[3], while universities, coaches, and media moguls operate the system as though it is their manifest destiny to hoard the spoils from this river of pure gold like its 1849.

A recent ad hoc study by Forbes posited that every amateur athlete in the 2014 NCAA Basketball Tournament could earn $340,000 (including the 12th man on the bench) for their participation in March Madness, even if they lost in the first round.  This study was based on a conservative estimate drawing upon the simple math of how typical sports organizations operate revenue sharing between owners and players.  Keep in mind, this is just basketball, an income revenue stream that is scant compared to football.[4]

Perhaps there is something bucolic about having one domain in our culture that is not driven by financial gain, but shouldn’t everyone then have to play by these rules?  If not, why should the figures with the least power in the system work for free, while the stakeholders bathe in money like they summer in Scrooge McDuck’s money vault?

The ubiquitous talking point for the NCAA thus far has been to argue that college athletes are students, not professional athletes.  Additionally, the NCAA, despite any legal jurisdiction to govern college sports, has scrambled to craft policy to maintain this status quo.  At his annual Final Four press conference, NCAA president Mark Emmert asserted that unionizing is “a grossly inappropriate solution” and would “blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”  Of note, Emmert earns $1.7 million annually and profits largely off of the NCAA’s ability to collect a heaping of basketball TV contract money for the tournament with minimal labor costs, as is the current business model of amateur athletics.  As Slate economics writer Jordan Weissman wrote, “the student athlete charade is crumbling,” citing much of the Chicago NLRB’s Director Ohr’s findings as evidence.

Ohr presented the fact that players spend 50 to 60 hours a week on football during training camp before school starts.  Furthermore, he also outlined that they dedicate 40 to 50 hours per week on football during the four-month season.  Ohr’s brief went on to state, “Not only is this more hours than many undisputed full-time employees work at their jobs, it is also many more hours than the players spend on their studies.”  Despite the NCAA’s assertions (and perhaps financial interest), it is hard to argue with the simplicity of this math as Americans with or without a college scholarship can total the hours of their work week.

All this money has a way of disrupting unity.  The advent of ESPN and the mammoth growth cable television has drastically changed the nature of amateur athletics, specifically men’s college football and basketball, in the last several decades leaving only vestiges of true amateurism within the college athletics community.  And as much as Dr. Lewin cites the advantages of unity and grouping for humankind, organized groups can also be threatening, non-inclusive, and form a power that can be quite intimidating.

Despite a seeming economic disparity, players desire for more control in what Colter and others feel is a top-down dictatorship, and a legitimate desire for greater player medical protections after college careers are over, there are plenty of reasons for players, administrators, and fans to be cautious in moving the system in a radically new direction.  Namely: fear of the unknown.  As Northwestern team captain Brandon Vitabile in the Wildcats first 2014 spring practice said simply, “no one knows what will really happen.”

ESPN’s Darren Rovell pointed out one negative consequence that could happen.  If indeed NU players unionize (they vote on April 25) and become recognized as “employees” then this could have major tax implications and leave players footing the IRS bill for their $61,000 a year scholarships (which they are currently exempt from as student-athletes).  ESPN’s senior writer Ivan Maisel added his fear that there are simply so many unknown and unintended consequences that could result from players unionizing that opening this Pandora’s box could leave college football stuck in a cascade of litigiousness for the next decade or longer.

Sports fans also have reason for questioning change as in many ways the fan is living in the golden age of sports consumption.  With nearly a thousand digital cable channels in 2014, a fan can watch football from sun up to well after sun down every fall Saturday.  Recently past movies like Rudy in the scene where Rudy’s dad belts out “we only watch one team in this house” in his southwest suburban Chicago brogue, remind us that not long ago only a handful of the popular teams were broadcast nationally and American home’s had a choice of only 1-2 games a weekend.  Whereas now, if you are a fan of Bowling Green University football, but live in Spokane, Washington you are just a thumb click of the remote control away from watching your team in real time HD.

Further compounding the case for change, is the modern day connotation of the word “union” itself, which comes with its own bit of prejudice these days.  Union has become a buzzword synonymous with halting progress.  In the big backyard of Evanston is Chicago, a place that is notorious for its bruiting powerful unions who have become known for obstructing common sense solutions.

And just across Lake Michigan to the east of Evanston, is another Midwestern[5] tale that leaves folks squeamish to the idea of unions.  Whether it is an economically fair argument to make or not, Michigan is a state in duress and many point to bloated auto worker union negotiated benefits for causing the region wide economic disparity.  Michigan, Wisconsin, and now Illinois, the heart of the Great Lakes region, are very much struggling with the political question of how to grow their stagnated economies while remaining mindful of middle class worker’s rights and wages.

Lastly though, it is education—the mechanism our country consistently points to as the cornerstone of vertical social change for the middle class–that can easily get overlooked in this dilemma. The cost of higher education has skyrocketed over the last two decades compared to the rest of the economy, as the New York times demonstrated in 2012.  The adversaries to change within the college athletics system can fairly point to Kain Colter’s near $250,000 tuition over his four years at Northwestern as the type of educational investment that has empowered him to be posing such institutional challenges in the first place.  With curriculum like labor economics, a liberal arts education permitting him to learn more about community, social action, and group unity, and even the Goldman Sachs internship[6] Colter was afforded last summer, all for free via his academic scholarships, are precisely the type of opportunities that hoards of middle class young adults hunger for (Will Smith’s character in The Pursuit of Happyness comes to mind).

In a globalized world, where western countries’ advantages are shrinking via the flattening of information from the Internet, America’s university system remains one of the country’s most cherished natural resources.  Students from South and East Asia come in droves every fall for the opportunity to study at the world’s finest institutions here in America, creating significantly higher demand, fewer spots for freshman, and the resulting exorbitant tuition from this supply and demand.  With the next decade’s economic bubble already defined by student loan debt, it would hardly be a leap in rational thinking to say that a full ride college scholarship is more valuable than ever before.

The fact is amateur athletics in its most idealistic and pure form have the potential to be the type of community building agent that is integral to our collective development.  For better or for worse though, TV contracts and big money have invaded the college football community and changed the game.  Yes, there are inherent advantages to the current system and not disrupting the homeostasis of the status quo, but that does not fully acknowledge a truth that the primary labor group that puts so many butts in the seats and eyeballs on the TV every Autumn Saturday has little power and insubstantial earnings for their contributions to this system.

The economics of college sports have changed and as a result the system must adapt and change, leaving much uncertainty.  But one incontrovertible truth that cannot be ignored amongst the many truths of this story is another idea that Dr. Kurt Lewin left us with, “We all need each other.  This type of interdependence is the greatest challenge to the maturity of individual and group functioning.”

Change is hard.  Big changes are hard won. As a family therapist I know this well.  No one, however, knows what all of this will bring and that is what is most scary about change. What does remain unchanged though, is the healthy value of asking rigorous questions of our selves, and the communities we participate in, and pushing ourselves toward growth.  If Northwestern is able to stay true to the bounds of its motto, one would hope that they can sit within the discomfort of these conflicting truths long enough and not shy away for it is hard, but instead find a collective truth that can work for the good of all facets of this community, not just the bottom line.

David Hauser, PhD, is a writer at the intersection of psychology, sports, and culture.  His psychotherapy practice at The Family Institute in Evanston/Chicago, IL is focused on working with families, couples, and individuals to better understand and heal relationships.  He also teaches in the Marital and Family Therapy graduate program at Northwestern University.  Follow on twitter/instagram @headiesports

 

[1] For many a decade you could say they were even a little too efficient with this grand scholarly mission, as decades followed even more decades with very few wins for Wildcat football until Gary Barnett’s triumphant purple revival in 1995

[2] Long forgotten are the days when we turned to our calligraphers to design the marketing plans, dare I ask: how we survived without “official branding consultants” back in the day??

[3] 1949 was the last time Northwestern won the Rose Bowl (or any substantial post season game for that matter)

[4] The University of Kentucky, historically one of the four most important college basketball programs in the country, is dwarfed by the earnings of their SEC basement dwelling football team (by over a 2 to 1 financial ratio)

[5] Cue the Nebraska cinematography, black and white motif

[6] Criticize Colter if you will for being a social agitator, but you cannot charge the man for with harboring any economic/political agenda when in the same 12 month period he is working within the heart of capitalism at Goldman, while also leading a unionizing battle with college athletics

Lessons from March Madness 2014 Part I: Canada is Important.

Wiggins, Ejim, Pango, Powell... Canadian Hoopsters Abound!

Wiggins, Ejim, Pango, Powell… Canadian Hoopsters Abound!

A 5 minute history of Canadian Basketball and why it is more significant than previously thought…

By David Hauser

There is a Freakanomics type of math that we do not employ often enough when examining sports and cultural phenomena: the +18 years formula.  As in, when there is something noticeable or out of the ordinary in a new generation or in a new crop of college freshman, go ahead and subtract eighteen years and identify some of the events, policies, and cultural movements that set the backdrop for this new group’s birth.

With such in mind, the Toronto Raptors have given us some moments over the last 18-20 years.  The franchise was established in 1995, along with fellow Canadian expansion team the Vancouver Grizzlies, as part of David Stern’s megalomanimous[1] insistence on turning the NBA into the next ‘world sports brand’ (note the synergistic delight between the drama, conspiracies, and chicanery in every NBA offseason along with FIFA’s routine leadership style fraught with a European flopping flare for the dramatic).  One would be more than fair in asking, with 18 years of data under our belts, has the NBA’s great Canadian Expansion been successful, meaningful, or even worth it at all?

Somewhere in Brooklyn a 23 year old with a caterpillar mustache who’s wearing a retro ’97 Bryant ‘Big Country’ Reeves Vancouver Grizzlies jersey just scoffed at this silly line of questioning.  However, for the rest of us, what really has NBA branded Canadian basketball provided us?  With the Grizzlies quickly having scampered across the continent to the mountains(?)[2] of Memphis, we are really only left to examine the evidence of Ontario basketball.

From the late 90s through the early 2000s the Raptors stamped their cultural mark namely with Vince Carter’s vinsanity and once in a generation dunk contest performances.  With substance though, the 2001 Raptors were on the doorstep to their first Eastern Conference Finals, but fell one point short to the Aaron McKie Allen Iverson led 76ers.  Looking back, this very well may have been the turning point for the franchise.  Despite (or because of) their lack of future playoff success, the Toronto professional basketball team managed to become the franchise who drafted raw, athletic talent (i.e., McGrady, Bosh, Half-man/Half-Amazin), developed them, and then watched them move to greener pastures and catalyze deep playoff drives for other teams.[3]

As the departed Raptors thrived for other teams throughout the mid-to-late Aughts, the visible passion of Toronto basketball manifested namely on Internet message boards through the “Raptor Truthers” movement (little did we know, the real Toronto basketball passion was showing itself on the elementary and middle school parquet–more on that in a moment).  The Raptor Truthers, a group of beleaguered sports fans trying to will their team credibility via the internet[4], were truly revolutionaries in establishing a rich Internet tradition as an intimidating and intense special interest sports base that browbeat sports writers to report more kindly about their beloved…as if that might change the truth about their team.

Yes there were some moments in these 18 years, but it does seem far-fetched that this is what David Stern dreamed of at night when hatching this great Canadian expansion in the early 90s.

As we check-in on Canadian NBA basketball as it turns the big ‘one-eight’ and can now serve its country and consume adult beverages,[5] there is perhaps a renewed hope.  For it is those little Ontario infants born of the mid 90s, seemingly growing up mimicking Carter and McGrady fast breaks on the NERF hoops perched upon their bedroom doors, that began attending college in the past couple of years, and wouldn’t you know it, an inordinate heaping of them are mighty fine basketball players.  In watching March Madness this weekend the names Andrew Wiggins!, Melvin Ejim!, Pango!, Dwight Powell! extolled off the tongues of play-by-play announcers in every which direction and region this weekend along with the ubiquitously espoused phrase “and he comes from his hometown of Toronto, Ontario Canada.”  The college basketball landscape is O!verflowing with Canadian talent like never before and the question raised for me is where did this sudden influx come from?

Providing further example of the +18 theory, in watching March Madness this opening weekend, the play (well actually…mostly name) of Shaquielle McKissic of ASU jumped off the screen late Thursday night.  Yes Shaquielle hit a few clutch shots down the stretch to give the Sun Devils a fighting shot at moving on in the tourney, but where in the world was the office wide memo that we all had another Shaq in our lives?  And then it dawned on me- of course, the 18+ rule.  Shaquille O’Neal came into the NBA in 1992 and within a mere three years he had a hypnotizing shoe, a taco named after him, multiple Greek/Roman nicknames, and two broken back boards under his belt (along with one NBA Finals appearance).  And voila 18 years later, we have arrived at the place in history when Shaquille O’Neal’s cultural imprint gets rewarded with a new generation of folks taking on his previously under utilized namesake.[6]

Could these two examples of 90s cultural basketball icons influencing today’s tournament and young players all be some elaborate happenstance and simply a matter of correlating events, lacking true causal inference?  Sure.  However, I implore you though to watch March Madness this second weekend and not notice the outlier–that 2013-2014 has significantly more Canadian prospects (33 in all in the tournament) than ever before and there must be some explanation for this.  Wichita State put two Canadian starters on the court yesterday, both from Ontario.  The Jayhawks relied all year on their own “Canadian LeBron James,” in Andrew Wiggins.  Melvin Ejim and his dapper flat top propelled Iowa State into the second weekend of the Big Dance.  Something is happening here.

Eighteen years ago, David Stern birthed his Canadian basketball baby.  Maybe this baby had a tough go of it throughout an awkward adolescence and only recently has started to show signs of maturation in the last few years, the high school years if you will, under the new tutelage of General Manager Masai Ujiri.  But who of us did not go through as much in those tricky and clumsy middle school and early high school years?

The Toronto Raptors will make the playoffs this year for the first year in a long time.  In a top-heavy Eastern Conference they likely will not move past where Vince Carter was able to lead them in yesteryear.  David Stern might be gone, but a new generation of Canadian basketball emerges in his absence.  And while the Godfather of Canadian Basketball, Steve Nash nears retirement, the investment of basketball north of the border seems to finally be paying big dividends.  It would appear the best of Canada’s brand of basketball is yet out in front of us.

On that note, this one’s for you, Andrew Wiggins—O Canada!


[1] Um, not really a word, or at least one that can be found in a dictionary.

[2] Naturally with the Memphis connection the obvious move was to change the team name to something The Firm or John Grisham related, but damn our sports bureaucracies to do something that crafty

[3] Of course applying to everyone except Tracy McGrady

[4] Now a common past time for every team’s fan base via Reddit

[5] Canada has a drinking age??

[6] You’re kidding yourself if you do not see that we are 13 years away from an outlandish number of Kim’s, Khole’s, and Kourtney’s coming of age

Sam: I Am: Football, youth and the psychology of identity

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Univ. of Missouri students, and young people alike, stand with Sam

By David Hauser

Michael Sam came out this week.

Relatively unknown on the national stage beyond the scope of college football enthusiasts and NFL “draftnicks” as an All-American defensive lineman and AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year, now his name, image, and clips of an interview with ESPN Outside the Lines’ Chris Connelly are being strewn across the mediasphere for society to react to and judge.

Through these initial and brief media openings into Michael Sam’s world, a few things seem clear.  He appears comfortable and confident, stating clearly and firmly, “I’m not afraid of who I am” in response to Connelly questioning what it is like to be setting out on such a landmark moment in American Sports as an openly gay athlete.

His comments also suggest a young man with tremendous courage—courage not just to “be true to one’s self,” which is hard enough for most of us, but to be one’s self while preparing to walk into the perils of an NFL locker room fraught with oddly expressed versions of masculinity, hazing, and the emotional sensitivities of a sledgehammer.  Furthermore, his comments also suggest courage to be entering the 24-hour news cycle that at times can be as damaging and dangerous as the NFL playing field itself.  But as much as Sam communicates courage, confidence, and comfort discussing this new frontier in American sports, it is impossible to see Michael Sam without noticing how young he is

Read the remainder of the piece at original post location by clicking here

The Psychology of Choking: What Keeps Peyton Manning From Success in the “Clutch?”

Peyton Manning mural

Courtesy of @gammagallery

By David Hauser

Regardless of how he performs this Sunday in Super Bowl XLVIII, Peyton Manning will go down as one of the five greatest football players ever.  Manning’s excellence in execution has made him one of the greatest sportsmen of his generation (regards to Brett Hart).  It is his gaudy regular season statistics, his un-guardable ability to be both quarterback and on-field offensive coordinator at the same time (OMAHA!), and his scholarly approach to the game—being so detailed in his preparation and execution that even his two-time Super Bowl-winning MVP little brother still sits in his shadow.

But in football, as in life, every pro still has a con.  For Manning, as much as his regular season masterful execution has become his calling card, the quality that leaves NFL talking heads drooling all over themselves is his occasional (dare I say, consistent) track record of tightening up in the biggest games—his Achilles’ heel as he writes the final few chapters of his storied career.

Manning has two decades of performance data on the national stage, dating back to his four years in creamsicle orange at the University of Tennessee.  His quantitative numbers (win/loss %, personal statistics) have always been so outrageously excellent that he is hard to quantify or make sense of, as he literally has no historical peers or comps.  He remains the greatest SEC Quarterback ever and perhaps the greatest statistical professional quarterback in history (with all due respect to Warren Moon’s Canadian Football catalog).

However, the underlying qualitative story and narrative of the Manning career dating back to his college days is as “the guy who couldn’t win the big game.”  In college, the rap was “he can’t beat Florida” (the alpha dog of the SEC in the mid- to late 90s).  Perplexing as it is looking back, Manning’s UT Volunteers went undefeated and won the National Championship only after Peyton left Knoxville for the NFL (all it took was Tee Martin (who?) replacing Peyton at the helm to finally beat Florida … and everyone else who stood in the Volunteers way the year after Peyton left).  As a Colt, Peyton led his team to the playoffs virtually every season after taking over leadership of the team as a rookie for the previously fledgling franchise.  He created legends out of his cadre of offensive skill players – Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, and Edgerrin James.  But this legendary offense always seemed to find themselves falling a little too short when January came around.

Some might suggest this tightening/choke narrative changed for Peyton in 2006 when he finally conquered his vaunted rival Patriots in a superb comeback win in the AFC Championship.  This followed by the great re-branding of Peyton as “Super Bowl Champion” a couple weeks later when his Colts defeated the Chicago Bears in SB XLI.  But if you investigate beneath the final result, this was one of the sloppiest, most poorly executed Super Bowls in the last decade.  The true hero was Colts rookie defensive back, Kelvin Hayden, who forced the game’s critical interception, returning it for a touchdown, the turning point of an otherwise sluggish and rain-filled Super Bowl.

At 37 years old, Manning just completed the best statistical regular season of any quarterback, of any age, the NFL has ever seen.  That is not supposed to happen.  Yet in his 20 years as a major American athlete, he has only the one game we can look back on and definitely say, “Yeah, that Peyton Manning, he’s clutch” (his 18 point comeback in the 2006 AFC Championship).  This is not insignificant.  For in America, the field is the arena for which we crown our greatest warriors.  And the natural adjectives of a true warrior: stoic, unfailingly courageous, unflappable remain beyond the descriptors that will be used to describe the Peyton Manning legacy.  Unless …

Cue the spotlight: New York City.  Super Bowl XLVIII.  The world’s most important city, in the most culturally consumed American event of the year (a day that quite frankly, “the powers that be” are remiss in not offering up the subsequent Monday as an “observance holiday” … for recovery, you know).  A historically great defense standing in the way of hishistorically great offense, or as Nate Silver pointed out earlier this week on the Colbert Report, this is only the eighth Super Bowl ever that has actually pitted the two best teams of that season against each other.

The stage is set, but is Peyton Manning destined to choke once more, or in this great battle of New York (East Rutherford, NJ), will he finally be able to shift his narrative into the clutch?

The psychological research suggests that there are two major obstacles in Manning’s way….read on here http://bit.ly/LwLrBc

Is it Great to Be a Florida Gator??

No rest for weary Gator fans who may have stashed their 2008 BCS Champs shirts for sunnier days: Jeff Driskel’s recentl loss to The U has nerves amok in Gainesville

By David Hauser

Attending a 10-year high school reunion after spending one’s 20’s accruing a laundry list of felonies and frequenting brony conventions sounds more desirable than the five-year reunion the 2008 National Champion Florida Gators have bathed in this summer.  While Tim Tebow may be able to show his former gridiron classmates snapshots of his Ben Hill Griffin Stadium featured $500,000 bronze statue and Percy Harvin can lean on his newly minted $67 million contract to rent out the lobby bar for the reunion after party, the boys in orange and blue of yesteryear have experienced an uncanny hideous run of unfortunate events this summer.  Let’s take a brief look at their ill-fated, Dante’s Inferno of a summer (or Dante’s Peak depending on your feelings about Pierce Brosnan’s post Nintendo 64 Goldeneye work):

Swampy Summer Camp Timeline:

  • June 26- Absent of any irony, or humanity for that matter, former standout UF tight end and former Tebow favorite pass target, Aaron Hernandez was arraigned for 1st degree murder.  Haunting and tragic details manifested suggesting Hernandez led an execution style murder of his “friend,” and casually left behind hoards of circumstantial evidence like his spit out and chewed out bubble yum at the scene of the crime.  Subsequently a trail of breadcrumbs has emerged leading back to previous unsolved murders and attempted murders in Boston and Gainesville with Hernandez’s fingerprints all over the case files.  Most recently, a damning feature in Rolling Stone profiled Hernandez’s troubled past following his father’s premature death including: alleged gang connections, violent crimes at UF potentially swept away by an earnest Urban Meyer trying to thump some bible into this seemingly lost teen-come-thug, and rampant angel dust consumption by Hernandez over the last six months which may at least in part explain some of the dense callousness layered upon this case.
  • July 30- In seemingly bright news for Gator disciples, 2008 stud all-purpose offensive weapon, Percy Harvin got paid and got away from the spray paint can arm of Christian Ponder.  Despite this good news, consistent with the hot hot heat of summer baking down on former Gators, Harvin immediately aggravated his hip, requiring surgery that will keep him off the field for much of the first season of this grand new contract.
  • August 1- Doing nothing to shake the image of North Florida as a wellspring of redneck parlance, former Gator All-Amurikin’ wideout Riley Cooper saw fit to drop an N-Bomb in the direction of an African-American security guard who was so rudely preventing the D-List celebrity from going back stage at a stop on the Kenny Chesney world tour.  Much to the disappointment (and lack of awareness) of Cooper, he happens to live in the Western Hemisphere during the 21st century, where cell phone cameras are kind of a “thing.”  The Internet heard about it, and the Internet got mad.  Adding insult to slur, was the timing of the release of this uncouth video, squaw in the heart of the dog days of summer, giving most beat-less sports writers (not all, kudos to Whitlock) further opportunity to pounce a Gator.
  • August 31- Cue the roadies: the NFL QB career revival tent is coming down.  Former Heisman QB and everyone’s favorite evangelical rowdy reptile, Tim Tebow, had his NFL career absorb perhaps its final blow dart when he was cut from the New England Patriots before the start of the regular season.  With Josh McDaniels, the coach/GM that drafted him into the NFL, and Urban Meyer crushholder, Bill Belicheck, giving up on the idea of Timmy as a legitimate NFL quarterback, he now more than ever seems destined to be the lead of the next season of The Bachelor.
  • September 9- And finally this past weekend, Maurkice Pouncey, Twin A and Anchor of the National Championship offensive line, suffered a season ending ACL and MCL tear putting the rare Week 1 nail in the coffin to the Pittsburgh Steelers season that already never was.

So let it be proclaimed: beware Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Joe Haden, the Alachua County winds are swirling these days, and not in a swell direction.

ATL: The Capital of College Football

Atlanta is far more than just the capital of Georgia

Atlanta is far more than just the capital of Georgia

By David Hauser

The 2012 SEC Championship should go down as one of the greatest college football games ever.  On College Football’s Conference Championship Weekend, for yet another year, it was the only championship game that mattered.  The SEC reigns supreme for another season and Southerners could not be more proud to let the rest of the country know it.

You see, I am a temporary resident of Atlanta for the year, so I’ve gotten just a sip of the flavor and a whiff of the aroma of the college football culture down here.  And I’ve quickly come to learn that Atlanta is the Capital City of College Football in this country.  While the entire state of Ohio may gasp in horror at this statement and Austin, Texas and Eugene, Oregon may insist otherwise (as some of Nate Silver’s numbers might suggest), there is simply no other city where college football means more and where the population is more overrun with zealotry and pride than Atlanta on autumn Saturdays.

Atlanta is the melting pot of the SEC: an amalgamation of Crimson Tide intensity, Gator devotion, and Gamecock pride, reaching across ethnic and social status divisions as one region passionately engaged and tuned in on fall Saturdays.  I’ve joked with my new co-workers here that it seems like it would be a sin to host a wedding on a Saturday during football season in the South and they responded with a straight-faced nod and a “yeah, sounds about right” (one colleague intentionally planned her wedding on a bye week of fiancé’s adopted team).

The people of the metropolitan area of Atlanta further revealed their passions for college football this year when it was announced that taxpayers would pony up $300 million in tax revenues to contribute to the construction of an entirely new retractable roofed Georgia Dome in order to continue to have a state of the art facility to host the SEC Championship (among other events), despite the fact that the current Georgia Dome is only 20 years old and received another $300 million of renovations just 5 years ago.

SEC fans flock to the Georgia Dome like the Salmon of Capistrano (or a lot of them just live here)

SEC fans flock to the Georgia Dome like the Salmon of Capistrano (or a lot of them just live here)

Adding to this town’s football enthusiasm, is the fact that taxpayers are willing to foot the bill for the construction and improvement of this celestial football monument while in the same year rejecting a one-cent sales tax to drastically improve the transportation grid in one of, if not the worst, trafficked and gridlocked cities in America.  So if you are scoring at home, Atlantians (or ATLiens if you prefer the homegrown Outkast label) are willing to spend 90 to 180 minutes of every single working day sitting in traffic if it means they can remain America’s Capital of College Football.  The ball is in your court Columbus, Ohio and Eugene, Oregon…but I don’t see you making this level of commitment to the cause. Continue reading

Jay Cutler: Teenage Mutant Ninja Quarterback

By David Hauser

First off, let the record state how difficult it is, in this the year of 2012, to find an actual hardbound (not even leather-bound nor smelling of rich mahogany) copy of the English dictionary.  But one university research library and two reference section workers with Masters in Library Sciences degrees later, just as I suspected, Jay Cutler’s picture is indeed printed right alongside the definition of “petulant” in the English dictionary.

Capricious? Check.  Insolent and rude? Check.  Fussy disposition? Emphatic check.

Ever since the mysterious self benching in the 2010 NFC Championship against his Bears’ ancient rival Packers, which resulted in Caleb Hanie’s 15 minutes of sports almost fame, the sports world has been scrambling to label and understand the moody man from Santa Claus, Indiana. Continue reading

Thur$day Night Football

In Roger Goodell’s tireless quest to further monetize the NFL (because you know these owners are broke and whatnot), the Thursday night on-field product suffers and injury risks rises

By David Hauser

Roger Goodell, the self appointed crusader and czar of NFL player health, found it within his complex web of cognitive dissonance to courageously demand teams play on 3 days rest, so the world can get yet one more night of football…and perhaps, oh I don’t know, his owners can make a few more greenbacks.

In yet another bout of wild hypocrisy (to go along with “Bountygate”), for the first time ever the NFL has scheduled weekly Thursday night games in order to commandeer one more night of voluptuous and bountiful TV ratings.  Better yet, with the Thursday night monopoly on professional football his The NFL Network can gain further leverage with Time Warner Cable in their endless bickering to add the 24-hour football network to more households (at a hefty price of course) and big markets.

What is lost in all of this is the fact that the product looks terrible on Thursdays.  The complex uptempo offenses, amazing quarterback play, and gifted skill players fans have fallen in love with in the last 2-3 seasons all require time to master execution and rest up from the prior week’s bloodbath.  But Goodell won’t have it, not when there is more $$$ on the table.  Goodell shrewdly selected a Bears v. Packers matchup, that had all the makings to be one of the best games of the year.  But due to his greed and insistence on placing this game on a Thursday night to spotlight his network (making it ever the more noticeable to cable viewers who do not receive the NFL Network), what could have been one of the marquee games of 2012 turned into an unwatchable slopfest.

Yes, Clay Matthews racked up 3 sacks and both defenses were conceivably more active, but anyone who watched the game knows that this was more of a product of offenses depleted of healthy skill players, lacking practice, and unable to execute.  Mark me down as one voice willing to forego an extra night of football to enhance the quality and health of the game.  And Roger, your big crafty master plan to convince me to call up my cable company on YOUR behalf to beg them to pay your ransom for your precious product…yeah…that’s not happening either.

#Livestrong Dateyoung

By David Hauser

There’s no shaking the Full House effect.  Bob Saget can go around for another 15 years as the most gutter mouthed, culturally insensitive comic on the comedy club circuit and we’ll all still remember at least part of him as Danny Tanner.  Same goes for the Olsens, if not even more so, as they rammed 892 straight-to-VHS unintelligible sing-a-long videos into our collective consciousness over a four year period (that without fail were always on in the backgrounds of extended family gatherings to keep the younger cousins quiet, while the older people could get drunk).  So yeah, when I heard that Lance Armstrong dropped other more age appropriate (and quite fetching) gals like Sheryl Crow and Tory Burch for the likes of an Olsen twin, I may have been quick to pass judgement and raise an eyebrow or two.  Maybe it’s ‘only 15 years’ of age difference, but he’s got to know he can’t date an Olsen twin, it’s just creepy.  Prove to me that Mr. Livestrong, as an awkward 17-year-old cranking out RPMs on his stationary bike in his parent’s basement, never once viewed a re-run of Full House and then maybe we can re-visit this conversation.

With that, it’s Friday, and I’m off to go listen to some of the early Jesse & the Rockers LPs.

Photo Essay: Philly Teenage 90s Bedroom

By David Berlin

After graduating law school and taking the bar exam this summer, I recently came home to live with my parents in suburban Philadelphia. Being temporarily domiciled in my childhood bedroom might not be optimal for getting the ladies, but at least I finally have time to document my collection of early to mid-‘90s sports memorabilia. My “No Fear” t-shirts, Starter winter jackets, and L.A. Gear light up shoes are all long gone, but a few priceless artifacts still remain.

First up – this vintage poster from 1997, celebrating the inaugural interleague baseball season.

The only surviving evidence that Travis Fryman ever existed.

Even though all six of these guys are still alive, doesn’t it kind of feel like you’re looking at a cave painting of ancient Egyptian pharaohs? Continue reading