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In two weeks, international cyclocross and American football will hold the biggest events of their respective seasons on the same day. I’ll be watching both.
Because I often find the lead up to the marquee event more interesting than the main event itself — thus explaining my unique affection for E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen — I spent several hours on Sunday watching World Cup cyclocross racing and the AFC and NFC Championship games, both to enjoy the racing and also to inform myself on the upcoming UCI Cyclocross World Championship and the National Football League’s championship game, the Super Bowl
I watched four separate sporting events on Sunday, and every one of them was a nail biter. So from that perspective, it was time in front of the TV well spent.
And I came away with some thoughts, tying the whole viewing experience together.
Both the men’s and women’s World Cup events, held at Pont Château, France, came down to last-lap duels between two riders, with a third rider throwing Hail Marys to keep things interesting.
Marianne Vos won the women’s race, eight seconds ahead of Denise Betsema, with Maud Kaptheijns yo-yoing off the back of the leaders, always a threat. Wout Van Aert won the men’s race in a sprint against Toon Aerts, with Michael Vanthourenhout playing the Kaptheijns role in the men’s race. Top-ranked riders Mathieu van der Poel and Sanne Cant sat out their respective races, opting for a Corendon-Circus team training camp in Spain.
Both of Sunday’s Conference Championship games went into overtime after being tied up in the final minute — the first time in NFL playoff history that two postseason games went into overtime on the same day. The afternoon game saw the Los Angeles Rams take the NFC Championship over the New Orleans Saints after being down 13 points, on the road, and never once leading the game. The evening game saw the New England Patriots defeat the Kansas City Chiefs, also on the road, to win the AFC title.
And while both cyclocross races saw pre-race favorites narrowly take victory, both NFL games ended in controversy.
When officiating changes the game
It’s hard to overstate the impact of one missed call in the final moments of the NFC Championship game between the Rams and the Saints.
With 1:49 remaining and the score tied 20-20, the Saints were driving toward a go-ahead score when quarterback Drew Brees threw a pass to wide receiver Tommylee Lewis. Rams cornerback Nickell Robey-Coleman plowed into Lewis well before the football arrived. The pass was ruled incomplete, however it was blatant pass-interference, a penalty that would have put the ball on the 5-yard line and given the Saints three downs to take a knee and drain the clock before attempting a sure-thing field goal.
— Deadspin (@Deadspin) January 21, 2019
Instead, the Rams had enough time on the clock to kick a tying field goal in regulation. They went on to win in overtime with a 57-yard field goal after Brees threw an interception.
After the game, Robey-Coleman acknowledged he should have been called for pass interference. “Oh, hell yeah,” he said upon being shown the play on a reporter’s phone. “That was P.I.” The no-call was so bad that the league office called Saints head coach Sean Payton after the game to apologize.
“They blew the call,” Payton said. “Man, there were a lot of opportunities, but that call puts it first-and-10 and we’d only need three plays. It’s a game-changing call. That’s where it’s at, so it’s disappointing. For a call like that not to be made, it’s just hard to swallow.”
A New Orleans attorney has filed a civil lawsuit on behalf of Saints season ticket holders, seeking to bring both teams back to replay the end of the game. Which, of course, won’t be happening.
Still, it’s hard to imagine a more significant officiating error than blowing a call that decides with team will advance to the Super Bowl.
Or is it?
This is the point where I’d like to say that professional cycling is immune to this sort of subjective officiating, but that would be categorically wrong, as evidenced most recently by the relegation of Lotto-Soudal’s Caleb Ewan on Stage 5 at the Santos Tour Down Under for an irregular sprint after he was seen head-butting 20-year-old Jasper Philipsen (UAE Team Emirates) three times while fighting for Peter Sagan’s wheel.
Ewan, who claimed he was using his head to remain upright and keep from hitting the barriers, won the sprint demonstrably ahead of Philipsen and Sagan, but was relegated. Race commentator and former field sprinter Robbie McEwen disagreed with the decision, calling it an “overreaction,” as did Ewan, who said he had to accept the decision taken by the jury, but that he didn’t agree with it.
“I wanted to protect myself and the whole peloton against a crash,” Ewan said.
Okay, you might say, but that’s just a stage of the Tour Down Under. You can’t compare it to poor officiating that keeps one team from going to the Super Bowl.
How about on Stage 4 at the 2017 Tour de France, when Sagan was disqualified from the Tour de France after tangling with Mark Cavendish? That decision sent home the world champion, the sport’s biggest star and ended his dream of winning what would now be seven consecutive green jerseys.
The UCI’s race jury stood by the decision, but Sagan and his Bora-Hansgrohe threatened to take the issue to the Court of Arbitration of Sport, forcing the UCI to acknowledge in December 2017 that the crash was “an unfortunate and unintentional race incident.”
“Having considered the materials submitted… including video footage that was not available at the time when the race jury had disqualified Peter Sagan, the parties agreed that the crash was an unfortunate and unintentional race incident and that the UCI Commissaires made their decision based on their best judgment in the circumstances,” a UCI statement read. “On this basis, the parties agreed not to continue with the legal proceedings and to focus on the positive steps that can be taken in the future instead.”
In the end, these are subjective decisions, made by officials, that dramatically impact the outcome on the field of play. One of the “positive steps” the UCI referred to was the addition of a UCI Video Commissaire, dedicated to watching instant replay.
In the wake of the no-call that determined which team is headed to the Super Bowl, the NFL and its competition committee plan are now considering making pass interference calls subject to instant replay review; it would need to be approved by at least 24 of 32 team owners. Current rules allow for each team to have two challenges per game, but the league has refused to allow subjective penalties such pass interference to be reviewed. In 2014, the Canadian Football League became the first football league to subject pass interference to video review. Coaches may challenge both penalty calls and calls that weren’t made.
The controversy in the AFC Championship game was less specific to one play, but instead there was renewed controversy around the NFL’s overtime rules, which sees a coin toss decide which team will take possession of the ball first (and possibly only team to take possession if they score a touchdown). Overtime is meant to essentially start a new game, but if the team that wins the coin toss scores a touchdown, the other team doesn’t get a chance to touch the ball, they just… lose.
The combination of a coin toss, New England’s powerful offense and Kansas City’s fatigued defense saw to it that the Chiefs’ electrifying young quarterback Patrick Mahomes never touched the ball in overtime.
The result of the Patriots’ victory was the return of a long-held argument that the NFL’s overtime rules need to be overhauled, allowing both teams one possession — as is customary in college football. The reasoning? When both teams are built around their offense, the team that wins the coin toss has an unfair advantage. And when that team happens to be the New England Patriots, people get pissed off.
The Team Sky/New England Patriots comparison
There’s no direct comparison between the New England Patriots and any singular entity in professional cyclocross, though Marianne Vos and Mathieu van der Poel have certainly had streaks of dominance, but there are similarities to be drawn between the Patriots and Team Sky.
Both programs have been exceedingly dominant, to the point of creating antipathy among fans. The Patriots have played in eight consecutive AFC Championship games, winning five of them, and going on to win two of the last four Super Bowls. Team Sky has won the Tour de France six of the past seven Tours de France, with three different riders.
In this scenario, Dave Brailsford is Bill Belichick, the cunning-but-perhaps-also-sinister general manager, while Chris Froome, a six-time Grand Tour champion, is the acclaimed-but-not-universally-loved franchise athlete Tom Brady, the five-time Super Bowl champion who will make his ninth Super Bowl appearance in 18 years on February 3. You could even slot in Geraint Thomas as Rob Gronkowski, the congenial, everyman tight end who has spent his entire career with the Patriots, loyal in his support role while emerging as a star in his own right.
Like Team Sky, the Patriots have been repeatedly and credibly accused of bending, if not breaking, league rules. If you’re not familiar, do a search for DeflateGate, from the 2015 AFC Championship game, for which Brady served a four-game suspension, or SpyGate, which came to the surface in 2007 after the Patriots were found to have videotaped signals of opposing coaches in 40 games over seven years, for which Belichick was fined $500,000, the maximum allowed by the league and the largest ever imposed on a coach. (This 2015 ESPN feature nicely ties together the Patriots’ long history of shady operations.)
Together, Belichick, Brady, and Gronkowski have created a dynasty. According to the record books, Brady will go down as the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and Belichick will be remembered as the most successful head coach of all time. But record books don’t always tell the whole story. In New England, the ream is revered; outside of New England, they are despised. Sound familiar?
It’s notable that NFL teams have paid attention to Team Sky’s success. Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, who worked as a college scout for the New England Patriots from 2003 to 2007, has studied Sky’s approach in an attempt to bring marginal gains to the football field, embedding with the team at the Tour de France in 2016 and 2017; he was in a Team Sky car when Froome had to run up Mont Ventoux without his bike, yet another example of officials forced to make a subjective call that had great impact on the outcome of the event.
Dimitroff took the Falcons to the Super Bowl in 2017, winning the NFC Championship against the Green Bay Packers, but the team was defeated by — you guessed it — the Patriots.
“I’ve been around this game all my life,” Dimitroff said. “So I’ve never been in awe with sports athletes. But I’m, yeah, in awe [of Team Sky]. Because it’s not just the athletes, it’s the whole program.”
Brutality comes in different forms
It’s easy to be critical of the brutality of the NFL, particularly given the rise in awareness of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head that causes memory loss, confusion, depression and dementia. That’s to say nothing about sprained ankles, torn ligaments, and broken bones. It’s a modern-day gladiator arena out on the playing field. Truth be told, I don’t watch a lot of American football in part because I cringe at seeing world-class athletes being carted off the field on a stretcher.
But bike racing can be pretty violent as well. No, riders aren’t intentionally putting other riders on the deck — Team Sky’s Gianni Moscon withstanding — but by nature, riders are punishing one another, twisting the proverbial knife while forcing each other to take high-stakes risks. And that’s to say nothing about the horrifying sight of a field-sprint pile up, where riders hit the pavement en masse at over 70kph.
A world-class athlete was carted off the field on a stretcher during the women’s race Sunday after Spanish rider Lucia Gonzalez clipped a fence stake with her foot and slammed to the ground face first. She was taken to a local hospital where she received stitches to her lip and x-rays of her jaw and neck, which thankfully proved negative.
That was on grass; asphalt is far less forgiving. Just ask Zdenek Stybar, a three-time cyclocross world champion, who had to have his front teeth replaced after a similar incident with barrier feet at the 2014 Eneco Tour. Or ask Patrick Bevin, who went down heavily last week while leading the Tour Down Under, and spent the night before the final stage in the hospital, having x-rays, rather than contemplating overall victory.
Remember Philippe Gilbert flying off the road and into a ravine at the Tour de France last year, finishing the stage with what would later be revealed as a fractured kneecap? Or the horrifying crashes at the 2016 Olympic road race that saw Ammeniek van Vleuten, Vincenzo Nibali, and Sergio Henao all transported to the hospital with broken bones, rather than receiving Olympic medals?
Or, bringing it back to cyclocross, how about Mathieu van der Poel being carried off the course at Azencross in 2016 after launching over a berm and landing on his head, motionless for what seemed like far too long?
Those are just the first few examples that came to mind; a list of professional cyclists who have suffered season-ending injuries would double the length of this column.
In what other sport are broken collarbones, broken scaphoids, and broken ribs as commonplace as in professional cycling, where an obvious fractured bone barely merits a reaction from commentators?
While cycling may be a non-contact sport, in theory, when there is contact the damage can be devastating. And just like in American football, it can happen at any time, in an instant. The way the games are played couldn’t me much different, but neither sport is for the faint of heart.
Different in many ways, not so different in other ways
It’s also easy to be critical of the NFL’s policy toward performance-enhancing drugs, which is, shall we say, is lax at best.
As a private league — not under the Olympic umbrella, and not subject to World Anti-Doping Agency Code — the NFL is free to enforce, or not enforce, how it sees fit; NFL drug testing policy is determined through collective bargaining between management and the players’ union.
Former NFL players have said the use of human growth hormone and testosterone is rampant. Prescription drugs such as Adderall, a stimulant, and Toradol, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, are widely used and abused. First violations for stimulants or anabolic agents carry minimal sanctions in the NFL, usually four games, whereas testing in professional cycling is extensive and violations can carry up to a four-year suspension.
The controversy surrounding Chris Froome’s salbutamol levels at the 2017 Vuelta a España would have been met with a collective shrug and nothing more had it been an NFL player, though it’s more likely it wouldn’t have been tested for in the first place. It’s a vast topic, and I won’t dig deep into it here, but it’s fair to say when it comes to drug testing, and deterrence, American football and professional cycling are at two ends of the spectrum.
I could go on all day, comparing and contrasting American football and professional cycling. Both are known for crazy, diehard fans. Both have spawned cottage industries for gamblers. Both require mental and physical toughness. Both start in September, and end in February. But there’s only one that I can still participate in, well into my forties, and watching or racing cyclocross is how I prefer to spend my Sundays.
Midway through writing this, I recalled that Jason Gay over at the Wall Street Journal wrote a column with a not-dissimilar angle back in 2013, just before the cyclocross worlds was held in Louisville, Kentucky. The headline? “The other (cooler) Super Bowl.”
In that piece, he wrote, “Enjoy the Super Bowl. Eat your wings. Watch the fancy commercials. Looks kind of fun. It’s just not a cyclocross race.”
I was at that world championship in Louisville, when two days of racing were compressed into one because a winter storm saw the Ohio River flood the venue at Eva Bandman Park. I remember watching Mathieu van der Poel win the junior race, riding so much faster than his peers it looked like he was on a motorcycle. I remember Marianne Vos putting on a demonstration, and the disappointment of Katie Compton’s silver medal on home soil. I remember Sven Nys winning his second world title, at age 36, and bursting into tears at the finish line.
I also remember watching the Super Bowl the next day at a local brewpub alongside what seemed like every member of every national federation in Louisville. Because everyone had booked flights out for the following day, the entire race entourage was stuck in downtown Louisville on a rainy Sunday. The Baltimore Ravens defeated the San Francisco 49ers in a close game that day, but what I remember more is drinking bourbon while watching Vos and van der Poel and the rest of the Dutch squad watch the Super Bowl, soaking in the Americana of it all.
This year the UCI Cyclocross World Championships will be held February 2-3 in the small Danish town of Bogense, population 4,000, with an estimated worldwide audience of around five million viewers. About eight hours after the elite men’s race finishes, the Super Bowl will be contested in Atlanta, a city of six million, with an estimated worldwide audience of over 100 million people. (By comparison, the 2018 FIFA World Cup championship game between France and Croatia attracted a combined global audience of 1.12 billion viewers, making both events seem a bit niche.)
What’s noteworthy is that while both cyclocross and American football will crown world champions on February 3, it’s hard to make the argument that either is truly an international competition. American football is almost exclusively contested by American players — seems like beating teams from Europe or Asia would make this a true world championship — while every cyclocross rider in the elite men’s top 10 ranking is either Belgian or Dutch, and seven of the top 10 in the elite women’s ranking is Belgian or Dutch.
It was former NFL commissioner Bert Bell who once said, “On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team.” And while Mathieu van der Poel has mostly erased those possibilities from elite men’s cyclocross this season, winning 24 of 26 events since September, it’s worth remembering that he’s been beaten by Wout van Aert at the world championships for the past three years.
As for the women’s race, it truly is wide open; as I wrote in a previous column, a conservative estimate might suggest six or eight legitimate contenders to take the rainbow jersey. I think it will be one of the best races of the year across all disciplines and genders.
Will Wout van Aert take a fourth consecutive title? Will Mathieu van der Poel cap off his dominant season with a rainbow jersey? Will Marianne Vos take an unprecedented eighth title, her first since 2014? Will Sanne Cant win a third consecutive crown? Will the Patriots add yet another Super Bowl victory to their dynasty? Or will the Rams spoil the party in Atlanta?
On February 3, all of these questions will be answered. Two major sporting events, different in many ways, perhaps not so different in other ways. I’ll be watching both closely. Let’s just hope the refs are watching closely as well.