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Feature Story

Football wins

9/6/2023

Football is the new national pastime. It took down all competitors during the last 50 years. The game generates more interest than all other sports in the U.S. It sells the most advertising of all sports or entertainments. Fox Broadcasting said that this year’s Super Bowl hit $600 million in ad sales. That’s just one game. It draws the biggest live crowds, too.

Even its residual game beats all others. Colleges with strong football programs garner more alumni and fan donations than others. Football does not even need an actual game to generate interest and ad money. Networks sell out pre-game shows, postgame shows and weeklong series of shows in which commentators speculate and argue about what might happen when actual games are played. When those shows, such as “College Game Day,” show up live in Ames or Iowa City, fans line up hours early to watch.

Throw in legalized sports gambling, and football’s residual income is responsible for billions more dollars, more than all other sports in the U.S. Football’s stadiums are the biggest as teams build them larger while other sports downsize. Top college coaches make $10 million a year. Top assistants make $1-2 million. Sportskeeda reports that New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick took his first pro job for $25 a week with the Indianapolis Colts. He now makes $20 million a year. The average franchise is now worth $4.4 billion. That’s up from a couple million in the 1970s. 

With so much on the line, pressure to excel can be overwhelming. Oddly, baseball took the brunt of the sports criticism for steroid abuse, but football got that ball rolling decades before Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire shocked people with their neck girths and record-setting home-run swings. 

Football’s John Matuszak died in 1989 as a result of acute propoxyphene intoxication, an overdose of the drug Darvocet, according to the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office. He was 38 years old. Lyle Alzado died three years later at 44 of brain lymphoma. Football passed a new rule named for Alzado. Sadly, it had nothing to do with steroid abuse. Instead, it forbid players to rip off opponents’ helmets. That was before the term “roid rage” was in use.

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Football has an unwritten rule about breaking rules: “If you aren’t cheating, you’re not trying hard enough to win.” If a trainer in horse racing said that, he would likely be banned for years. Football just accepts that players need to bulk up by whatever means. 

The pressure to win has gone so deep into the American football psyche that Southern newspapers have reported that numerous high schools, and even middle schools, are practicing redshirting. That is a common practice in college where players are held back from progressing to higher grades and graduation. If your edge rusher is a year older, he’s probably bigger and stronger. Parents go along with it because the edge rusher might have more scholarship offers at 19 than 18. 

New England Patriots Coach Bill Belichick took his first pro job for $25 a week with the Indianapolis Colts. He now makes $20 million a year. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

American football is real football

Football is uniquely American. The rest of the world calls soccer “football.” There is a much-repeated joke that says football resembles American business management and politics — it’s an endless series of committee meetings interrupted by brief flourishes of violence. Baseball has won the hearts of much of Asia and Latin America. Basketball and hockey have gone completely international. But football is really only “football” in the U.S. and Canada.

Maybe we love it so much because professional football presents the most level playing field for fans. That is because of the NFL’s unique revenue sharing of television money, which fuels all growth in sports. Consider the recent disintegration of the Pacific Coast Conference. UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington all defected to the Big Ten, which now runs coast to coast. Colorado, Arizona, Arizona State and Utah all moved to the Big 12, which now will have 16 teams. That was for more football TV money. 

Colleges don’t share revenues beyond their conferences, and that is why the rich get richer and the poor talk about basketball season. But in the NFL, TV money goes equally to everyone, and the annual draft allows the worst teams to pick new players first. Salary caps also keep the league fair.

As a result, most dogs have their day. The New York and Los Angeles teams do not dominate the way they have in baseball. Tiny markets like Las Vegas and Green Bay have NFL teams with winning traditions. Jacksonville and Detroit have high hopes this year.  

How did football seize the hearts and minds of America?

Football started its surge to the zenith about the same time Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” in the mid 1960s. Pete Rozelle began his 30-year career as commissioner of the NFL in 1966.

The two events were linked. In the seminal chapter of his book, McLuhan wrote that media themselves, not the content they carry, should be the focus of scrutiny. “The medium is the message.” McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects society not by the content delivered but by the characteristics of the medium itself. McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles, yet it is a medium that has a social effect — it enables people to create spaces that would otherwise be dark.

Television was still relatively new in the 1960s. The majority of Americans were just beginning to use it, instead of newspapers, to inform themselves. But it dramatically changed the way information was received. The Civil Rights Museum in Little Rock has a dramatic demonstration regarding the way network TV portrayed the Little Rock Nine and their attempt to integrate Central High School, setting off race riots. The exhibit claims that TV coverage prepared America for the first television war in Vietnam a few years later. No newspaper story could translate the palpability of violence like TV could. Rozelle embraced television as a messenger itself. He tied the league’s future to national TV contracts. Other pro sports were still going it solo with individual media contracts for individual teams. 

Comedian George Carlin did a famous “Saturday Night Live” routine about the differences between baseball and football. The comedian, who preferred baseball, noted that “football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting, and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice. Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog. In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play.”

Rozelle sensed television was changing America. The new medium was making violence more acceptable. He was prescient to hitch his wagon to the new workhorse. 

Baseball’s ascendance to pastime status a century earlier was recorded by the medium best suited for appreciating it — the newspaper. That was an encyclopedia of statistics for fans who loved keeping score. Later, Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti wrote that baseball was best appreciated on the radio, “in the green fields of the mind” where things don’t change.

Baseball, and, to a lesser degree, basketball and hockey, are quotidian games. A season lasts through many games and success is recorded almost daily, the way newspapers and radio stations appreciate. Football games are played once a week, which is what television was about — weekly shows, “really big shows” as Ed Sullivan put it. Unlike other American sports, football involved marching bands, Scottish Highlanders, baton twirlers, and other entertainments. It lent itself to pre-game parties, halftime shows and post-game parties. TV and football were born for each other every bit as much as tailgating and football were. Football was to become something that families planned all week to watch.

When Rozelle sold “Monday Night Football” to ABC, the partnership created the most successful TV show in ratings history. It was TV’s top-rated show for years in a row. It changed society — bowling leagues switched from Mondays to Tuesdays, Monday attendance at movies went in the tank. One Seattle hospital even changed its Monday night operations schedule.

Coach Tom Gruening believes football is a great teacher of life lessons.

The Old Coach

We asked longtime Des Moines Roosevelt and Urbandale High School coach Tom Gruening to talk about football’s ascendance. 

“For me, football was already the king of sports when I started playing in the 1960s. I would watch the stars of the day and try to imitate them, especially Ray Nitschke and Mike Ditka. Coach (Don) Prior and (Robert) Anderson were big inspirations, still are.

“Coach Prior told me, when I first entered the program, about ‘Rider Time.’ That meant 10 minutes early for whatever you were supposed to be doing. I am still on ‘Rider Time.’ I always show up 10 minutes early.”

Coach Anderson was quite the motivational speaker. 

“Oh my, he literally could inspire us to crash through closed doors. Gary Mitzkoff did that once and just kept running. He was a big inspiration to me, too. Coach (Charlie) McQuire told me that Anderson had given inspirational speeches to Marines in WWII. I never doubted that.”

What is different about football that makes it special? 

“I think the biggest thing is that there are so many moving parts that need to synch together to succeed. Follow your blockers, master the long snap and the short snap, read the blockers when you’re playing linebacker. Read the linebacker when you’re playing offense. When everything works together, it’s really beautiful.”

Did you play both ways? 

“I did my sophomore and junior years in high school. My senior year, they wanted me just on offense. In college, I played offense, and all my best friends were offensive linemen. Take care of the guys who take care of you. That’s a football rule and a great life lesson.” 

How did platooning (no players going both ways) change football? 

“First of all, it gave more playing time to more athletes. That attracted more parents and fans. It always made the game better because everyone was better rested. That cut injuries, too. And so did equipment technology. Equipment is so much better now. I make certain that my grandkids have equipment that fits. That’s important.”

Did “Monday Night Football” change things? 

“Oh, yes. It quickly became such a big thing because it was the one time that the whole nation watched the same game. I would study my position players, and we would talk about it. I had my players do that as a coach.”

Are the bands inspiring to players? 

“Yes. Bands are a big part of football. We had pep rallies each week at Roosevelt, and they ended with the band playing ‘Men of Honor.’ The first time I heard that, I told Mitzkoff, ‘Wow, that’s a cool song.’ He back-handed me in the face and said, ‘No one talks when that song is playing.’ I now know the song was written in 1862 to send off boys to the Civil War. That makes it sacred to me.”

Roosevelt was a top-two team in Gruening’s playing days. Not so much anymore. Does inspiration need the winning? 

“Football is such a beautiful game. What I took from it, some 60 years later, is that all you need are moments — the time you busted a tackle and scored, etc. Those memories are lifelong, whether you won the game or not. In many ways, kids today are more inspired. I never lifted weights in high school or college even. Few did. Today, kids do because it’s good to have 20 more pounds of muscle and faster feet.” 

Do Gruening’s children love or hate football? 

“My daughters call me every week to talk about games. My son and wife, too, are great fans.”

The young analyist 

Ryland Jewett is an accountant and financial planner who applies game theory and analytics to football. He’s really good at it. I asked him for an interview on how he, at 36, has noticed football seize the hearts and minds of American sports fans. 

“Two things happened about the same time that changed sports for me. Before Michael Jordan retired for the final time in 2003, the NBA was as big a deal as football, at least to my age group. Basketball’s stars were the best athletes. MJ really demonstrated that. That’s probably why he thought he could also be a great baseball player, like Bo Jackson. 

“About the turn of the century, Michael Vick came along. He was the best athlete, and he was the quarterback. We’d seen a little of that with Randall Cunningham, but it was obvious with Vick. Before that, football teams typically played lesser athletes at quarterback, reliable guys who didn’t dazzle you but were considered safe managers who wouldn’t lose a game.

“Fans want to see great athletes star. Vick ushered that trend in. He was the guy who made it a good idea to play your best athlete at the most important position. Then came Cam Newton, Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Justin Herbert, Kyler Murrey, Dak Prescott, etc.

“Consider that Allen Iverson was a great football player who shifted to basketball. That was before football teams looked to play their best athlete, not their smartest mind, at quarterback. 

“Now the NFL has the Rooney rule (policy that requires league teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs). I think that happened because of minorities becoming quarterbacks. It promotes minorities in leadership positions in every phase of football.”

Both Jewett’s parents were bookies. Did that influence his enjoyment of analytics?

“You could say so. I remember one thing about growing up with bookies for parents. We could never go on vacation during football or basketball seasons, just in the summer.

In the late 1960s, 50% of Americans were regular churchgoers. That was down to just 28% by the millennium. You could say that football took pastime status from baseball but also that it took Sunday from God.” ♦


Lesser-known football of the metro

Iowa and Iowa State are on TV every week, and most games are expensive to see live. But Drake plays in a good league. Grand View is a former national champion, and so is Central. Plus, driving to Pella for a football game is a divine rite of Iowa autumn. And Central’s games are free. 

Drake home schedule

Sept. 9 Northwestern (Iowa) 

Oct. 7 Valparaiso

Oct. 14 St. Thomas

Oct. 28 Stetson

Nov. 11 Presbyterian

Grand View home schedule

Sept. 9 Missouri Baptist

Sept. 16 Baker

Sept 30 Central Methodist

Oct. 12 Culver-Stockton

Oct. 28 Peru State

Central home schedule 

Sept. 16 Coe

Sept. 30 Dubuque

Oct. 12 Nebraska Wesleyan

Nov. 4 Buena Vista

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