Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Buckeye

Today I’m going to go watch the Ohio State Buckeyes play the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium.  It will be a noon kickoff, on a cold day.  That’s about all I can tell you with any certainty, because I sure can’t predict which Ohio State team might show up to play the game.

crib-jekyllThis Ohio State squad is a total head-scratcher.  They play uninspired football against Oklahoma and get drubbed, then right the ship and convincingly win a bunch of games against the Big Ten Little Sisters of the Poor, then they stage a titanic comeback to beat Penn State in a thriller that puts them squarely back in the conversation for the College Football Playoffs . . . then they lay a colossal egg against Iowa and get obliterated.  The Iowa loss not only was a butt-kicking, it was a revelation of sorts:  this team obviously hasn’t jelled, and when things started to go south against the Hawkeyes, there was no one who stood up and made the key stop, or secured the key turnover, or broke the tackle and made the long run to turn the momentum around.  Iowa was the kind of game, and the kind of embarrassing result, that never would have happened to other Ohio State teams.

Having never been an athlete, I can’t possibly understand what goes in to playing college football at the big-school, Ohio State level, but this year’s team shows that there is a mental component to the game that is every bit as important as the physical component.  If a team isn’t focused, if the players don’t play with the right attitude and drive, if the athletes don’t give that extra effort that might make the difference between failure and success, size and speed don’t mean all that much.  When everybody on the field is an elite athlete in their own right, grit and determination and toughness count for a lot.  Against Iowa, the Buckeyes just didn’t have that indefinable quality.  I’m guessing that Urban Meyer and his coaches have spent a lot of time thinking about and working on the team’s mental game this past week.

So at today’s game, will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Buckeye?  I’m sure hoping that the coaches figured out how to get the players ready for this game.

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Ohio’s Quadrennial Electoral Regrets

Here we go again.  We’ve gone through the first part of the presidential campaign, with votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada.  The Democratic and Republican fields have narrowed . . . and weirdness prevails.

Let’s face it:  none of these states is really very demographically or culturally representative of the country as a whole, but still they get to be the filters that sift through the candidates for the rest of us.  So we get to see cardigan-wearing candidates yakking at town halls and hugging distraught young people.  We try to understand obscure delegate selection rules — why caucuses, and not outright elections? — and hear about which Republican is going to appeal most to the born-again crowd.  And Dixville North, New Hampshire gets it’s name on the national newscasts, just as it does every four years.

And each result in these early contests gets blown up to titanic proportions, even if the real differences are small.  Consider yesterday’s Democratic caucuses in Nevada.  Hillary Clinton won with 6,238 votes versus Bernie Sanders 5,589 votes.  That’s less than 650 out of less than 12,000 votes, yet now the pundits say HRC has Big Mo on her side.  And 12,000 votes?  In Ohio we get that many people at some high school football games.  Should a few thousand casino workers in Las Vegas and Reno really have such an influence on presidential politics?

Every four years we seem to ask this question — why don’t states like Ohio have a larger role in the presidential selection process? It’s being asked again this year, too.  Ohio is a state that closely mirrors the country as a whole.  It’s got big cities and rural areas, it’s got labor unions and small businesses, it’s ethnically and culturally diverse, and it’s politically diverse, too.  And, perhaps most importantly, every election cycle Ohio ends up being one of the crucial “battleground states,” whereas no candidates are going to Iowa or New Hampshire or South Carolina when general elections are in the balance and Election Day is drawing near.  Yet, in the primaries, we don’t get to Ohio until after the candidates wade through predominantly white states like Iowa and New Hampshire and largely evangelical states like Iowa and South Carolina, and some candidates who conceivably might be viable have dropped out because they’ve run out or money or failed to appeal sufficiently to the born again contingent.  This year may present the same kind of scenario.

I know, some people will talk about the historic role of Iowa and New Hampshire, or say that it’s good for candidates to start in “retail” settings before they move to “wholesale” politics, but those are just rationalizations for a candidate selection process that just makes no sense.  So this year we say what we say every four years:  why not start the electoral process where it always ends up — in Ohio?

Heads I Win, Tails You Lose

Here’s another weirdness about Iowa.  In 6 of the 1,681 precincts that caucused last night, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders ended up in a tie and flipped a coin to decide who should get a delegate.  It’s not exactly a rational way to pick a President, is it?

bigstock-coin-flip-5807921But it gets even weirder, because Hillary Clinton won all six of the coin tosses.  What are the odds of winning six coin tosses in a row?  As simple mathematics would reveal, and as several newspapers have reported, Clinton had exactly a one-in-64 chance — or 1.6 percent — of winning all six flips.  Most of us could never dream of winning even two of three coin flips in a row, much less a half dozen.

What kind of coin were they using for these flips, anyway?  Was it of the two-headed variety, or improperly weighted, or did Sanders’ minions fall for the old heads I win, tails you lose trick?

Hillary Clinton may not have fared as well as she wanted in the Iowa caucuses, but she sure lucked out in the coin toss category.  She probably should have bought a PowerBall ticket.

Iowa Is Weird

Kish and I spent last night watching the news networks’ breathless coverage of the Iowa caucuses (“Tonight, America finally casts its first votes of 2016!”) and we came away with one overwhelming reaction:  Iowa is weird.  In fact, it’s very weird.

It’s not the people of Iowa who are weird, of course — it’s the process.  Rather than trooping off to the private voting booths like the rest of us, Iowans employ a strange caucus system that requires you to leave your home at night in the dead of winter, sit in different corners of a church or hall, and yawn through speeches by supporters of the different candidates.  This year, if you were a Republican caucusgoer, that meant enduring speeches by supporters of 11 different candidates before your vote is counted.

usa-elections-iowa-caucusHow many of us would put up with that appalling time-suck, and how many perfectly rational Iowans who would otherwise vote the normal way decide to skip the caucuses?  The answer is:  a lot.  Even with all of the media hype about record turnouts for the caucuses, the fact is that only a fraction of the Iowans who vote in the general election participate in the caucuses.

But the caucuses are even weirder as a result of the 24-hour media machine.  Last night we watched as reporters and cameras prowled caucus sites, shouldering their ways between voters and actually recording Iowans trying to convince each other to change their allegiances.  Of course, most of us like the idea of casting a private ballot in a voting booth (or what passes for a voting booth these days) and would no more want a camera recording our every move as we exercised our franchise than we would want to watch a 24-hour marathon of Barney episodes.  The caucus participants also were heavily “entrance-polled.”  And at least some Iowans have become so wedded to the supposed importance of their caucuses that they say that the amount of time a candidate physically spends in Iowa is a factor in their ultimate decision — while others earnestly assure the rest of America that they take seriously their role as “first voters.”  (Stay humble, Iowa!)

So let the pundits talk about how the Iowa caucuses are really a good way to start the process, because candidates need to get out and press the flesh and do “town halls” and eat with the locals at diners and rub elbows with the evangelicals at church.  In reality, the demographics of the participants in the bizarre Iowa caucus process aren’t remotely representative of those of the rest of the country, and the caucus process itself no doubt exacerbates the discrepancy.

This year the caucuses will serve a useful purpose of winnowing out the fields; Martin O’Malley on the D side and Mike Huckabee on the R side both “suspended their campaigns” after dismal showings, and hopefully more faltering candidates on the overcrowded Republican side will throw in the towel, too.  But don’t expect me to care too much about the results, otherwise.  (Although, if I were a Hillary Clinton supporter, I’d be concerned that she barely beat Bernie Sanders and got less than 50 percent of the caucusgoers support after being the prohibitive, well-heeled favorite for months.)  Let’s move on now to states where they hold real elections, shall we?

What If They Gave A Debate And Nobody Watched?

Tonight, at 9 p.m. on NBC, Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders will square off in a primetime debate between the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination for President.

Will you be watching?  If so, you might not have much company.

rtx1zf68-1024x696The ratings for the Democratic presidential candidate debates have, well, suffered by comparison to the ratings for the Republican contests.  The most recent Democratic debate, on ABC in December, attracted 6.7 million viewers.  The Republican debate in December on CNN, in contrast, got 18 million viewers, and earlier debates among the GOP field pulled in 25 million and 24 million viewers.  The most recent Republican debate, earlier this week on the Fox Business Network, was watched by 11 million Americans.

Why are the Democratic debates getting trounced?  Some simply attribute it to the Donald Trump factor, reasoning that his supporters watch the debates because they like what he has to say, his detractors watch hoping he puts his foot in his mouth, and non-political people watch because he’s entertaining.  Others think the Republican debates simply have more uncertainty and drama than the Democratic contests, where it was widely believed that the debates are just a formality on Hillary Clinton’s inevitable march to the nomination.

Still others (like the Sanders campaign) note that the Democratic debates have been scheduled on Saturday nights, traditionally not a heavy TV-watching period, and argue the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign may have made those arrangements specifically to keep people from hearing what Bernie Sanders has to say.  It is weird that the debates have been set for dates and times that aren’t exactly prime viewing periods, and it seems at least plausible that the Clinton campaign’s ultra-cautious, play-it-safe approach was a factor in the scheduling.  If so, that’s kind of strange, when you think about it.  Either the Clinton people think Hillary can’t out-debate a self-declared Socialist, or — perhaps more likely — they think the voters in Democratic primaries and caucuses are so liberal that Sander’s socialist positions will be attractive if the likely primary voters just find out what he is saying.

If that’s the Clinton camp’s strategy, is it working?  It’s not entirely clear.  Sanders apparently has closed the gap in Iowa and is doing well in New Hampshire, although Clinton has increased her lead in national polls. But the national polls really don’t mean a lot when it comes to primaries and caucuses, and if Sanders can pull upsets in Iowa and New Hampshire, it’s not hard to imagine Clinton’s big national lead, and the sense of inevitability that her supporters have tried to project, melting away in favor of the new guy.  In fact, the New York Times is reporting that some members of the Clinton campaign — including Bill Clinton — think it was a mistake to not come out swinging against Sanders at the outset.  Part of a more aggressive approach, of course, would have meant holding debates at times when people might actually be inclined to tune in.

So, will you be watching tonight, or not?  After all, a new episode of Downton Abbey is airing on PBS.

Happy Picture, Happy Thoughts

8dbb109f-2811-4942-b624-5d00d644946cOhio State isn’t playing in the Big Ten Championship Game today — more’s the pity — but that doesn’t mean we can’t still revel in last weekend’s crushing defeat of That School Up North.

And in the meantime, we’ll think happy thoughts about the dominoes that need to fall for the Buckeyes to get back into the playoffs to defend their National Championship.  I think we need Michigan State to beat Iowa convincingly in the Big Ten Championship Game, along with Alabama losing in the SEC Championship Game or Clemson losing in the ACC Championship Game — or maybe both.  It’s a long shot, perhaps, but it’s still a shot.

Thanks to Mrs. Nesser for this picture of the scoreboard at the Big House, memorializing the Buckeyes’ dominating win.

Wussifying Football

In the first quarter of today’s Ohio State-Iowa game, an Iowa receiver caught a pass on a crossing pattern and got drilled in the chest by Buckeye defensive back Bradley Roby.  The Iowa receiver, to his credit, held on to the ball.

The officials dropped a flag.  They ended up calling a “targeting” penalty on Roby for what certainly looked to me like a clean, if hard, hit, and then ejected Roby from the game.  The explanation for the penalty is that a receiver who catches the ball is “defenseless” and shouldn’t be drilled.

Huh?  This is, or was, football.  The game is all about hard hits.  I’m not in favor of headhunting, or spearing someone who is on the ground, or clothes-lining a receiver in the neck, but Roby’s hit was a classic football hit — shoulder to chest, trying to jar the ball loose.  The fact that Roby was not only penalized, but in fact ejected from the game, for such a hit tells me that the game is changing, and not for the better.

At last week’s Browns’ game we saw a similar call.  As the Lions were driving for a score to try to put the game away, a Browns player hit the Lions QB in the chest just as the ball was released.  The pass was incomplete, but the Browns were called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, and the game was over.

I’m sure these rules changes are being made, at least in part, in order to protect players and to avoid the concussions that have plagued football at every level.  I also suspect, however, that the motivation, at least in part, is to favor the offense.  In the Ohio State game today, one Iowa running back typically put his head down and used his helmet to try to batter the would-be tacklers.  It’s a time-honored football technique — but why should the offensive player be able to lead with his head when a defensive player can’t?

We may be heading toward a day when every football game is a 52-49 affair and offenses move up and down the field to the delight of offensive-minded fans.  If that happens, it’s too bad — because it’s not really football.  I’m hoping that the officials in charge of devising new penalties avoid wussifying football to the point where the sport isn’t really recognizable any more.