I am a sinner, the lowest of the low, a man from the heartland who has abandoned the clarion call of March Madness. This morning, I awoke to no busted brackets or regretful tears over Wichita State’s massacring of tournament expectations. When the sound of Florida Gulf Coast alley oops fell silent in the face of a Florida team led by a guy who can’t act his way out of a UPS commercial (say it with me as woodenly as possible, “I-t-’-s a-b-o-u-t l-o-g-i-s-t-i-c-s”), I shed not a single tear. No, for the first time in my life, I refused to fill out NCAA brackets and to be honest, I feel free, like a bunch of Disney starlets on Spring Break: “Come on y’all why you actin’ ‘spicious?”
Listen, I used to be just like you (providing there is a you at the end of this post, let’s just assume for my ego that you exist). The NCAA tournament symbolized everything that was right with the world: competitiveness, a certain “democracy” and above all breathtaking moments of true surprise. When Austin Peay (14th seed) pulled a tourney upset of the highly ranked Illinois (3rd seed) in 1987, my Uncle Johnny, an alumni of the former, taunted his brother in law in Chicago for months and kept replaying the game on his rickety Betamax VCR, always pausing when the camera turned to a sign that captured the university’s spirit: a drawing of a zipper with words “The Peay will Flow” scrawled under it, classy.
The NCAAs were human, salt of the Earth, and built on values. People who expressed a fealty to professional basketball at the expense of their college brethren seemed like morally flawed libertines. “I bet you cheat on your spouse, snort coke off of sleeping toddlers, and perform pagan rituals involving Danzig songs and chickens in your dimly lit S&M basement,” were thoughts that always speed through my mind to the sinister tones of the song “Mother.” “Heathen,” I’d whisper to myself.
Growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, the closest pro team (there were the Cincinnati Royals but they left in 1972 to eventually become the Sacramento Kings) was Cleveland, but the University of Cincinnati has a long basketball pedigree: two national championships (1961-1962, 1962-1963), six final fours, Oscar Robertson, and more recently the boorish but effective, sort of, Bob Huggins. So obviously, local sports offered an early introduction into college basketball. Perhaps more importantly, I grew up right next to Pennsylvania, ground zero for the Big East. My Uncle Lester (he of Cleveland handy fame, and a Pitt graduate) practically humped the television when those classic 1980s Pitt teams starring Jerome Lane and Sean Miller came on. Battles with the evil Syracuse Orangemen led by Jim Boeheim or the John Thompson-led Hoyas of Georgetown left an impression. I have to admit, Uncle Lester’s “enthusiasm” rubbed off on me; I had the Big East itch from then on and March Madness provided my favorite teams the opportunity to demonstrate their basketball prowess. In 1985, three Big East teams made the Final Four: Villanova, Georgetown, and St. John. “Those were the salad days,” drawled Nick Cage in Raising Arizona, and indeed these were.
Then I grew up. When the Big East collapsed this year (it didn’t, it just retracted and probably for the best) the amount of crocodile tears that coaches shed blaming “greedy administrators” for its demise made more than a couple observers chuckle (see Slate’s podcast Hang Up and Listen). The Big East itself had been a cash grab in the 1980s, a super conference before super conferences. When they expanded in the 1990s and 2000s, adding football and shedding the occasional school like Boston College, everyone knew the writing was on the all. The Big East, even if a sort of corporate sham, had been at least about one thing: basketball. When Uncle Lester tearfully eulogized the conference at Christmas this year, my father snapped at him, “Jesus, Lester we live in fucking Cincinnati!” Whatever, my dad went to Oberlin but still doesn’t get Girls references (“Is that the show that has the guy from Newhart in it?”) while Lester knows each week’s episode by heart; clearly my Dad has his priorities wrong, but still he has a point.
Being from Cinci, local examples alone pointed to problems. The aforementioned Bob Huggins, not exactly on the up and up, a Bobby Knight disciple in nearly everyway but one: graduation rates. Knight, an insufferable prick, graduated players, Huggins didn’t. In 16 seasons 28% of his 95 players claimed college diplomas. Four of these seasons Huggins graduated literally nobody and even had a player with a 0.0 grade average. Eventually, the University and Coach Huggins parted ways, low graduation rates, a D.U.I. and other scandals led to his dismissal. Not that I really care, but when people talk about college basketball like a pure crystal of hope, it seems laughable.
The eminently respectable Keith Orejel published a great argument for the inherent democratic symbolism of the tournament. Certainly worth the read, but I have to respectfully disagree. Yes, compared to the BCS, March Madness seems to be a paragon of virtue, but this is like juxtaposing Tito and Stalin: sure, one proved marginally better but they both sucked. The NCAA rules over college athletes like a “cartel,” Michael Wilbon frequently argues on P.T.I. and elsewhere. Civil rights historian Taylor Branch took the NCAA to task in his widely read Atlantic piece in 2011. “For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited, it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence—‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’—are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes,” wrote Branch. “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.” This, my friend(s) remains the crux of the problem.
In 2012, Jalen Rose’s “Fab Five” documentary brightlined this point as five Midwestern kids created a lot of cash and exposure for University of Michigan but continued to eat off hot plates while their jerseys sold like MDMA at a Skrillex show. They redefined the look and attitude of college basketball, but did not receive one red cent and even had their banners pulled down in the wake of scandals involving players and payments: cash advances mind you, that amounted to very little in the grand scheme of things. These kind of scandals plague players; Chris Webber still takes shit for it to this day, but Bob Huggins gets rehired at West Virginia while college analysts laud his coaching bonafides and his ability to instill “discipline.” Louisville’s Rick Pitino sold his brand of family oriented success as a motivational speaker but then paid for an abortion for his girlfriend (he’s married with kids) who he knocked up in a Louisville restaurant. Yes, truly leaders of men; shining lights in a sea of darkness.
In October of last year, a study of TIVO viewing habits revealed the following: registered Democrats preferred the NBA and Republicans dug college basketball. Who knows how accurate this report was, but count this independent voter in the Democratic camp on this one. I have shed my parochial, moralistic view of college basketball and embraced the more honest graft of the NBA. I want weed smoke and questionable fashion choices by prominent players: Dwyane Wade, those white pants were mad tight; no, I mean really those pants are really too tight. Even as a spurned Ohio native, I want to watch Lebron’s skills advance as his hairline recedes. The Chicago – Miami game that ended the Heat’s amazing run of 27 straight victories had me on the edge of my seat. Undoubtedly, the Michigan – Kansas game Friday night proved equally perhaps even more exciting and Louisville-Duke game with the horrific injury suffered by Kevin Ware and his teammates emotional response pull at the heartstrings of even Zero Dark Thirty tortures. However, the Bull’s-Heat battle recalled classic 1980s NBA playoff games even though it took place during a part of the season known more for dearth of pulse pounding moments.
Quality matters too. A couple weeks ago ToM’s Ryan Reft discussed the state of U.S. soccer in the wake of the Chivas USA controversy, asserting in part that the nation’s professional league, MLS, suffered from one major problem in drawing U.S. eyeballs: quality. MLS had improved but not enough to compete with superior leagues (now broadcast widely on cable and the internet) in England, Spain, Mexico, and Germany. Likewise, no one doubts that college basketball, in terms of play, is a shell of its former self. Top players leave after one year or never play college ball. Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, and countless other NBA players (many of whom, admittedly, failed to gain any real foothold in the league) never set foot in college. Even Jay Bilas admitted recently that the quality of college ball declined in recent years as games morphed into overly physical wrestling matches where teams score 30 points a half. Meanwhile, the NBA, partially due to the “Lebron Decision” controversy a couple years ago, which no matter how one felt about it ratcheted up attention and interest in the league, enjoyed two of its most exciting seasons recently. Lebron’s amazing play and controversial move to Miami, combined with an influx of talent and the rise of young new teams like Oklahoma City have made the NBA a nightly obsession. Rules changes made the game more offensive even as the sabermetric revolution recalibrated defense and created new ways of evaluating talent.
Can anyone deny the delicious theater provided by the last two years of regulars season and playoffs? The Miami-Dallas final had the makings of an NBA classic: redeeming Dirk Nowitski’s career and solidifying his future place in the Hall of Fame while essentially shaming Lebron and driving him to new delirious heights. Don’t sleep on the Laker-Celtics battles in 2010 and 2008; over the last five or six finals fans witnessed both old school beefs and brand new rivalries. Who doesn’t look forward to the next couple years of OKC’s Kevin Durant competing with Lebron for MVP and league wide domination? The league’s also witnessed promising rookies, Portland’s Damian Lillard and the Wizard’s Bradley Beal, surprising late bloomers like Houston’s Jeremy Lin who has proven a more than reliable starting point guard for a viable playoff team, and new break out stars, like Lin’s back court mate James Harden who few realized had the talent to lead his own squad.
Is the NBA exploitative? Undoubtedly, yes, the whole lockout last year proved an embarrassment. The owner’s cried poverty, forced players to take pay cuts, and generally behaved shamefully as even the most disastrous of franchises have reported increased valuations. David Stern runs (soon to be “ran,” since he’ll be stepping down) the league like Vince McMahon Mao – a iron fisted showboat who cups his ears to boos ala 1980s WWF Hulk Hogan. When Bill Simmons calls him the “Notorious DJS” it all makes sense. In contrast, the NCAA gives me a faceless dictatorship devoid of personality; I get no bread and circus. If I have to live under an oppressive regime, at least make it one where I have an entertaining and clearly defined heel with which to direct my ire or spittle depending on how worked up I get. Besides, as inept as the player’s union has been, at least there is a union. What do college kids get? The dorm resident head with a PhD in Religious Studies — not very useful in this context, right?
As for the morality of “one and done” (established in 2005), the rule that requires players to spend one year in college before declaring for the draft, that too remains a sham. One could argue that the NBA like any union or labor organization can set its own rules, but the moral hand wringing over whether a player need attend college or directly go pro boggles the mind. If these kids all wanted to become plumbers out of high school would you care? If anything, many people would pat them on the back for being pragmatic and acquiring a “skill.” Declare for the NBA out of high school, however, and now we’ve crossed an imagined moral threshold. My cousin Denny is a master carpenter in Pittsburgh, good money, good union benefits; he skipped college and went straight to an apprenticeship. Why wasn’t that morally questionable? I like my sports honest about their duplicity. The NBA might be screwing young kids with one and done, but at least it doesn’t come wrapped in a burrito of self-righteousness.
Listen, don’t get me wrong, I still dabble in the dark arts of March Madness. Some of the games have been great, but don’t ask me to get excited Wichita State. Hey Wichita State you still live in Wichita. Liberty University, a school though named after the concept of freedom, prohibits couples from sitting on each others’ laps or giving back rubs; can’t wait to get my t-shirt. Give me a surly Kobe, a dirty John Stocktonesque D. Wade, a resolute Chris Paul, all plying their trade for millions of dollars while still battling exploitation under the nefarious owner-friendly Notorious DJS. I’ll take the acknowledged dishonesty and exploitation of the NBA over the faux morality of March Madness.