On the NFL, the Super Bowl, and living in the host city

So, this is the second time now that Houston has hosted the Super Bowl at the same stadium (originally Reliant Stadium, now called NRG Stadium). Yes, Houston did host Super Bowl VIII at Rice Stadium back in 1974, but this was before my time.

I have been a football fan pretty much my entire life. During the five-year period from 1997 to 2001 when Houston did not have an NFL franchise, that changed a bit. For a while I even followed Arena Football, which unfortunately hasn’t remained popular, with the current incarnation having contracted to a mere five teams down from a one-time high of 19.

That said, once my favorite teams (Houston Texans and Seattle Seahawks) get eliminated from the playoffs, I usually quit caring about football for the year and will often either tune out of the Super Bowl or watch only part of it. This year I’m watching from home, mainly because it’s being played here in town. However, next year, unless the Texans or Seahawks are playing in it, I may not watch, for a variety of reasons.

One good thing about having the city you live in host the Super Bowl is a lot of things get fixed and cleaned up that otherwise nobody would really care about. Trash gets picked up off the streets, businesses clean up their exterior and possibly even fix burned-out bulbs in their signage, major streets get repainted months ahead of schedule, burned out streetlights get fixed. This year, it also appears the Super Bowl was the impetus for the completion of the Green Line overpass connecting the final two stations (Cezar Chavez/67th Street and Magnolia Park Transit Center).

Of course there is a flip side to this too where laws are used in unintended ways. While I haven’t heard much about the city (particularly the police department) mistreating the homeless in advance of the Super Bowl, I’m sure it has happened. It’s implausible that the Super Bowl coming up in less than two months and HPD deciding to enforce the homeless feeding ban more aggressively than usual was just a mere coincidence.

While we do get an economic influx, there’s also the extra traffic from everybody coming to town for the game and/or other related festivities. On a personal note, this was part of the reason I cancelled my planned attendance of the 2600 meeting at The Galleria on Friday; it was questionable if I would have attended even if potentially thicker-than-usual crowds were not a factor. I was at The Galleria on Wednesday, and the crowds weren’t terrible then, but who knows how bad it was on Friday night? (If you were there, feel free to comment.) Also, I see many friends on Facebook who can’t wait for the city to “get back to normal.” I don’t blame them.

I don’t mean to throw rain on your parade if you’re a diehard football fan and only care that it’s the NFL and there’s 11 guys on each side of the ball running into each other in the closest thing the USA has to ancient Roman gladiatorial combat. If you enjoy the game no matter who’s playing, that’s great. But some don’t, and some like myself lose interest if the teams are unfamiliar. And honestly, normal life can be chaotic enough without a wildly popular football game and the associated crowds coming to town.

Colin Kaepernick and the anthem

Before Friday night’s NFL preseason game between the San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, it was pretty much the usual routine. The “usual routine” before most football games is to play the national anthem, and etiquette and custom in the United States dictates that those physically able to stand for the playing of the national anthem do so. Colin Kaepernick, quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, refused to stand. So much for the usual routine.

This story on NFL.com contains Colin’s explanation for his refusal to stand for the anthem:

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color,” Kaepernick told NFL Media in an exclusive interview after the game. “To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

His team, the San Francisco 49ers, appears to stand by Colin amidst the controversy:

The 49ers issued a statement about Kaepernick’s decision: “The national anthem is and always will be a special part of the pre-game ceremony. It is an opportunity to honor our country and reflect on the great liberties we are afforded as its citizens. In respecting such American principles as freedom of religion and freedom of expression, we recognize the right of an individual to choose and participate, or not, in our celebration of the national anthem.”

The article goes on to quote a statement released by the NFL,

I am disappoined that there exist circumstances which made Colin’s action of refusing to stand for the anthem something he felt necessary to do. I know he is not the first to do so, but I would like to think with the nation’s minds on football, and this story appearing in places where the relatively large football fan base is looking, that people will finally start talking about this issue.

We have a real problem with racism and racial inequality in this country, and it needs to be addressed. As I said in a recent instant messaging conversation with a friend, I try to be proud to be part of this country, but there are things people do, some of which get international press, that often make that difficult. That said, the freedoms in this country include freedom of expression and freedom of speech, which include things like burning the flag, not standing for the anthem, and not reciting the pledge.

(Quick aside: I personally have no problem standing for the anthem or reciting most of the pledge. Being an atheist, I will remain silent for about 2-3 seconds after “one nation” and pick it up again with “indivisible.” The pledge was written by a minister, who left out the words relating to a deity on purpose. They were added later, by Congress. But that’s another topic for another post…)

Is it a bit ironic that the freedoms guaranteed by the country for which the flag and anthem stand for, include burning that flag and sitting for that anthem in protest? Maybe. But people like Colin don’t protest like that without a good reason. Rather than write him off as unpatriotic, people should look into what kind of statement Colin is trying to make.

Why is the deep-pocketed NFL looking for Super Bowl volunteers?

In a recent Houston Press story titled “If the NFL Really Needs You, Then Make the NFL Pay for It”, John Royal describes how the Houston Super Bowl Committee is seeking a large number of volunteers to help make the Super Bowl and the festivities around it a success. From the article:

[T]he Houston Super Bowl Committee is seeking volunteers for the game. Ten thousand volunteers, to be exact. You won’t get paid, though, because, duh, you’re a volunteer. You also won’t get to see the game because, duh, you’re a volunteer.

For its volunteers, the Super Bowl committee seeks team players who are open, full of integrity, respectful and strive for excellence. If a person meets those qualifications, then he or she has to attend three training sessions while working 18 to 24 hours the week of the game. Which, when you think of it, is a lot of time to waste for a non-charity event that is going to pull in tons of cash.

If it seems outrageous that the Super Bowl would need volunteers, given that it’s an obvious for-profit event, well, maybe that’s because it is. Given the financial backing and the obscene amount of money the NFL makes from the Super Bowl, there’s money in there to pay people to fill these positions. Ten thousand people working 24 hours each at $10 per hour adds up to $2.4 million. (With a $15 per hour minimum wage it would jump to $3.6 million, which is still not that much money; read on.)

Split evenly between the 32 teams, that $2.4 million comes out to $75,000 per team, or one-sixth of a rookie player’s guaranteed minimum salary ($450,000). Put next to the $3.2 billion the TV networks pay to broadcast the NFL season, that $2.4 million doesn’t look like a whole lot of money at all. In fact it seems like a sensible investment to make sure the event is a success.

It is noteworthy that last year (2015), the NFL gave up non-profit status after criticism came to a head. This makes the decision to solicit volunteers all the more puzzling.

I have been a football fan ever since the Houston Texans brought professional football back to Houston in 2002. But every once in a while, something happens that makes it harder to be a football fan. This is one of those things. It really does not sit well with me that a for-profit event, run by an organization that is for-profit now (at least in the legal sense and for tax purposes), would need to solicit volunteers, which implies that they are unable to pay. Whether tax-exempt or not, the NFL is definitely not a charity.

The only thing that makes sense is that they are simply unwilling to pay, not unable, and yet, I’m sure the NFL and the local committee will get their volunteers anyway. H.L. Mencken was on to something when he famously said “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” The saying of disputed origin “There’s a sucker born every minute” quite possibly applies here as well. (The latter saying has been attributed to P.T. Barnum but was more likely originally said by David Hannum, one of his rivals.)

If you want to volunteer in the Houston area, there are other places to go to find opportunities. Other cities have similar sites and programs. Look before you leap. Don’t give your time away for free to someone who is just looking to make a buck with no charitable purpose.

Changing of the zebras: The NFL and replacement officiating

This past Thursday the original NFL officials that had been locked out since the preseason finally returned to the field (specifically, M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore for the Thursday night Ravens-Browns game), ending a nearly two-month period of frustration where undertrained officials were not only the source of frustration for fans, coaches, players, and sports journalists alike, but were also frequently the topic of conversation on sports talk radio stations around the country.

The lockout centered around a dispute regarding retirement benefits, with the league wanting to move immediately to a 401(k) and away from a defined-benefit pension plan. And it’s admirable that the officials stood their ground. However, I fault the NFL on two points. One, for not expediting the resolution of this dispute before at least the end of the preseason, after which it was already obvious that you can’t just go and secretly replace NFL-trained zebras with Brand X officials pulled out of college and high-school officiating. Two, for not having a better contingency plan. It would have been far better for the sport of football to either shorten the season or delay the start of it until the situation with the officials could be straightened out.

And I say this even as a fan of the 3-0 Texans, whose first three wins were officiated by the replacements. And no, I don’t think that the replacement officials tainted those wins. There were a few blown calls but nothing of the magnitude of the Packers-Seahawks game, which even the league admits was handled poorly. (However, the NFL  gives a different reason; they said the simultaneous catch call should have been moot due to an offensive pass interference that should have been called but was not.)

It’s good to have the real referees back. And it’s hard to fault the replacements for doing their best with a lack of training, though in fairness they should never have been put in that difficult position to begin with.

A Texas-sized Super Bowl seating snafu

I didn’t watch the Super Bowl this year; the only reason it’s on my DVR is so I can watch the commercials and study them like any other marketing guy. And the story I’m writing about here is on a PR disaster that’s probably going to leave Jerry Jones with a Texas-sized headache–and which may well preclude the Dallas Cowboys franchise from hosting another Super Bowl any time soon.

The New York Times and the New York Daily News reported on a seating snafu caused by the failure to complete some sections of temporary bleachers in time for the game. The story also hints that part of it had to do with Jerry Jones’s desire for a Super Bowl attendance record, which was ultimately unsuccessful (103,219 versus the record set in 1980 at the Rose Bowl of 103,985).

To their credit, the NFL did something to try and make things right, offering the fans who were not able to be relocated to other seats in the stadium free food and merchandise and the chance to watch the game from one of the stadium’s private clubs and/or the standing-room-only rooms, as well as a refund of three times the face value of the tickets.

The refund may well not cover what some scalpers charged for tickets. But I’ve ranted about scalpers before, and my opinion of them has not changed at all. Suffice it to say I have a low opinion of those who would profit at the expense of the NFL and their fans, and I’m disappointed the NFL and its member teams have done almost nothing about Super Bowl ticket scalping. It’s entirely possible the NFL doesn’t care, but that’s kind of a side issue here.

Anyway, this quote from Ashante Green of Pittsburgh (at the end of the NY Times story), who was relocated from an unusable section 240A seat to one in section 448 (in the upper deck), sums it up nicely:

It’s ridiculous… What am I supposed to do? Not go in?

I consider what happened here an embarrassment to all of Texas. Mr. Jones should be ashamed of himself and the bad PR he brought to not only his franchise, but the NFL, his city, and his state. Look, guys, if you’re going to put in temporary seating to try and break the attendance record, make sure it’s ready to use by game time. Otherwise, you just look like a bunch of idiots. And let’s be honest here, there are enough people that have this mistaken stereotype in their heads about Texas being full of “dumb cowboys” or worse. Mr. Jones, and his greedy, selfish quest for a Super Bowl attendance record, didn’t exactly help.

The least that could have been done, was to acknowledge that there were tickets out there for unusable seats prior to game time, and have the contingency plan ready to go and announced. It’s much better from a PR standpoint to admit a goof like this before you have hundreds of disgruntled fans rather than after.