The fact that I even have to write a post defending the NCAA basketball tournament should expose David Simon Cowell for the rabble-rousing contrarian that he is. (See DSC’s blasphemous original post here.)
There are two main arguments I want to address here (the third – that college basketball, as representative of big-time college athletics as a whole, is a sham designed to make money for TV executives, the NCAA and the NBA – isn’t really debatable).
First, the notion that the NBA is a superior product to the NCAA: Look, of course the NBA features superior talent to the NCAA, by the sports’ very nature. Just like the NFL has better players than college football does. Just like men’s tennis has better players than women’s tennis. But that doesn’t mean we can’t watch and enjoy college football or women’s tennis.
For decades, the genre of heavy metal has featured the most talented, most virtuosic musicians working in pop music. Metal has the best guitar players, the best bassists, the fastest and most technically impressive solos. Those musicians study classical forms, they pattern their songs and albums after symphonies, and they value musicianship in a way that pop bands in other genres simply don’t.
But the vast majority of us don’t listen to heavy metal. Why? The songwriting isn’t as compelling, and the genre itself is ill-suited for most people’s tastes. Are the members of the Beatles, R.E.M. and U2 amazing musicians? For the most part no, but those are all great bands.
It’s the same way with basketball. NBA players are the best in the world at what they do; they’re exponentially more skilled than their collegiate brethren. But the NBA game is dull, stilted, passionless. The product is far less than the sum of its parts.
Unlike March Madness, which is the single greatest playoff of any American sport, the NBA playoffs are a disaster. They last months – literally, and are plagued by momentum-killing off-days. Moreover, the best-of-seven format in the first round is absolutely brutal. Every year, we have to watch the .500 teams who fill out the Eastern Conference’s playoff seeds play at least 4 or 5 games.
The style of play in the NBA is numbing. I played fantasy basketball this year as an attempt to force myself to watch more NBA games. Well, I have, and I wish I hadn’t. Hey, look, it’s another isolation play for LeBron James or Paul Pierce. Awesome. NCAA players may play shitty defense, but NBA players play indifferent defense, and I’ll take unskilled passion over skilled ambivalence any day.
In any college game, not just during the tournament, I am always convinced that every player on the court is giving maximum effort (excluding teams coached by John Calipari), and cares deeply about winning the game. In the pros, that only happens in the playoffs – and even then not always. The reasons for the disparity in effort are many-fold, but it essentially comes down to money. There are a lot of guys who stop giving legitimate, consistent effort when they’ve already earned millions and know or think they’re set for the rest of their lives. In college, you’re either playing to get a pro contract (be it in the NBA, Greece, Italy, or whatever) or you’re playing because you love to play. Of course, certain NBA players care as much or more about winning than anyone in college, but they’re the exceptions.
OK, on to argument #2, which is that people like college basketball better than the NBA….because of race? Uh oh. Looks like someone’s been getting into his old cultural studies syllabi.
First of all, people root for upsets not because they want to see white people best black people, but because rooting for the underdog is simple human nature. We want to see David beat Goliath, to see Eddie the Eagle land his ski jump, to see N.C. State beat Houston.
And more to the point, what upset do people most desperately want to see every March? They want to see Duke lose. And what big-time college basketball program generally has the most white players? Duke.
One thing that DSC is right about: March Madness is a gimmick. It just happens to be the best gimmick that’s ever been invented in sports.
The World Series was a gimmick when it was first invented. So was the Super Bowl. Why should the winners of the American League and National League bother playing each other? And a best-of-seven format? Seems random. Basically every playoff format in every sport is a gimmick, or at least started as one. NCAA basketball just did a better job with theirs than anyone else. Yes, the one-and-done format means the best team doesn’t always win. Unlike the NFL, where a team that goes undefeated during the regular season will definitely romp through the playoffs unimpeded. And unlike MLB, where an 83-79 team could never dream of winning the World Series. Unlike the NBA, where – oh, I guess the best team usually does win the NBA playoffs. Coincidentally, the NBA playoffs are a snoozefest.
Yes, it’s true that if you played a ton of games over a few days (with playoff implications) in any sport, percentages dictate that there would be a bunch of good games. But other sports don’t do that. And that’s what makes the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament one of the best weekends in sports every year.
I know your heart is dark, DSC. But it’s OK to open it up once in a while and let a little sunlight in. It’s OK to enjoy something for what it is – especially when what it is happens to be the most exciting spectacle in all of sports (except for Wrestlemania).