Thoughts on the Iowa Bowl

Like many people, I have friends who attended the University of Texas.  And like most people who attended Texas, they are passionate fans of the Longhorns, the University’s sports, particularly football, teams.  And while, to them, every Longhorns game is important, none of them are as important as the annual matchup between the Longhorns and the Aggies, the team of Texas A&M.

This is not merely a Texas thing; one can find the same phenomenon in locations as disparate as Florida (the Florida Gators versus the Florida State Seminoles), Michigan (the Michigan Wolverines and the Michigan State Spartans), and California (the UCLA Bruins versus the USC Trojans).  And while these intrastate games have real significance occassionally, often all these programs are among the nation’s best, and have other more significant games on their schedules.  Yet the bitter rivalries between in-state rivals persist over generations, and often surpass the more significant games in importance to both the students and the players.

This does not, upon casual inspection, make sense.  There is not a vast or significant difference between the students of Michigan and Michigan State – both groups are generally made up of mostly kids from in the state, a similar percentage of out-of-state kids, nearly all between the ages of 18 and 25.  The players for both teams are also similarly made up – mostly black men from urban or rural backgrounds on scholarship, generally performing below the average academic level of their peers.  Stranger still, the students and alumni at each school have much more in common with their opposite than either group has with either team’s players, and vice versa.  

So why does the rivalry exist at all?

The answer comes in two parts.  First of all, there is a real and implicit class difference between these schools.  The University of Texas is more “respectable” and classier than A&M, in a similar way (albeit in a far different kind of society) as the students of the University of Southern California (a private school) feel about UCLA (a public school).  Even schools which represent demographics which outsiders would resolutely see as the same, such as Harvard and Yale, have stauch class distinctions felt by insiders (and a football rivalry to match).  People from different sides of the tracks generally don’t get to act out their feelings towards one another.  Intrastate sports rivalries give them the chance to do battle, even if only by proxy.

The second reason is because such rivalries are expedient for the schools and their sports programs.  No team can maintain dominance or even high quality forever (one need look no further than this past season’s Notre Dame team for evidence), and rivalry games are a great way to maintain passion and interest in both the fans and the players when few other rewards are still available for added effort and expense.  A game between a lousy Michigan and Michigan State team will still pack the stadium, and probably still be nationally televised (lots of expat alumni care).  Helping to maintain rivalries is insurance against future crappiness by the schools and teams.

It is fitting that this year, the Iowa caucuses fall during Bowl Week in the United States.  Like the students of Texas and Texas A&M, Democrat and Republican voters have a lot more in common with one another than they do with the career politicians who are vying to represent them.  Like the student bodies at the two schools, the political parties are mostly set apart by class differences, rather than by the policy positions claimed by party leaders which have about as much relevance as the offensive systems which teams claim to adhere to as long as they bring on-field success.  Just as a ball control offense will turn pass happy in the second half when behind, the “small government” Republicans led the largest expansion in government spending since the New Deal in the last seven years.

Similarly, the “players” in the Iowa Bowl are much more like one another than they are like you or me.  Mitt Romney and John Edwards have far more in common with each other than with us, similarly to John McCain and Chris Dodd.  Indeed, they are also far more likely to hang out with one another than to hang out with you and me.  

In the end, is the victory of Barack Obama in Iowa really a win for Democrats, for the American people?  Or is it a lot more like the outcome of this year’s match between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones, a game where a few dozen people on each side played, and tens of thousands cheered and booed as instructed?

At football games, they sometimes call the home crowd the twelfth man.  This is odd, because the home crowd almost never has a chance to impact the game in any meaningful way.  Indeed, the only way they truly matter (beyond paying for their tickets and beer) is that without the crowd, the players wouldn’t bother to actually play the game.


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  1. …anyone have any thoughts about Ron Paul more than doubling Giuliani’s numbers?

  2. I think we have the illusion of “competition” and for some puzzling reason it satisfies us.

    Actually what the candidates all represent are varying degrees of accommodation ( just my opinion not fact ) with he current system as opposed to change. When pundits say voters want “change” or voters claim they want “change” what they want is a slightly different version of what they already have.

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