March lameness

The NCAA Tournament has too many teams -- and an unstoppable hype machine.

By Allen Barra

Published March 14, 2002 11:34PM (EST)

It all began with Irish. Not the annoying people who will be leaving pools of green vomit in your streets this weekend, but a newspaperman named Ned Irish. The way I heard the story, Irish tried, with limited success, to cover college basketball games for a New York daily in the late '30s. After repeatedly being denied admission, and sneaking in to cover the games anyway, Irish was able to convince influential New York basketball schools that newspaper coverage might actually be a good thing for college basketball. By 1938 he was so widely respected by the major powers that he was able to organize the first post-season college basketball competition, the National Invitational Tournament, or NIT.

For a couple of decades the NIT suited everyone just fine. But as usual when money is involved, gang wars were inevitable. For a long time, the tournament established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association was second in both money and prestige to the NIT, and for good reason. The NIT could always offer an invitee something that the NCAA could not, namely, a trip to New York. That meant more media coverage and, generally, more money in the form of ticket sales. There was no way the NCAA could compete -- at least not fairly. Over a period of time, the NCAA bullied and pressured its way into a dominant position by mandating that its member schools send their conference champions to its tournament. Once that was accomplished, it was only a matter of time before virtually all the leading teams in the country would forsake college basketball's original tournament.

Newspaper editorialists spend 11 months out of the year lambasting the NCAA for being arbitrary, dictatorial and brutal. Then they spend the other month, March, acting as the NCAA's partner. It's almost as if the Mafia were hammered in the press all year, then given two weeks of newspaper, television and radio time to advertise a bake sale.

The NCAA's 65-team Men's Tournament is now billed as "America's Greatest Sporting Event." Who, I wonder, began to call it this? Certainly not TV audiences, among whom the tournament has been steadily losing viewers for several seasons. Well, we know who made up the slogan: the NCAA. What's amazing is how unchallenged that statement goes in the sports press. If, for instance, a 32-team tournament were advertised as "America's Greatest Sporting Event," would anyone swallow it? I don't think so. They certainly wouldn't if it were a 16-team tournament, because then it wouldn't be much bigger than the post-seasons of professional sports teams. But in fact, as anyone can plainly see year after year, any tournament that includes more than 16 teams is blatantly bogus.

Exactly who, I wonder, considers the humiliation of these 16th-seeded teams to be in the hallowed tradition of college sporting ethics? As near as I can see, there are only two entities that benefit -- the athletic departments, who receive a handsome check from the television money for agreeing to this sham, and the NCAA itself, which keeps its power by doling out the cash to a wide selection of teams that otherwise would see little or no television money.

The NCAA lost college football when a group of major powers formed the College Football Association and kicked the NCAA out of the television bargaining, but that can't happen with basketball because there are too many major powers and each of them needs too many opponents to flesh out an entire season's worth of games. So the NCAA controls the major powers by controlling the have-nots. To the uneducated it almost sounds Robin Hood-ish, taking from the very, very rich and giving it to the moderately rich. In fact, this is almost exactly what it would be like if Robin Hood was then given power to sell sweaters, athletic gear and player posters and to negotiate TV rights.

Is there anyone who can even pretend that there is a legitimate reason -- I mean a reason beyond money -- for 65 teams being in a national tournament? Is there anyone who thinks that 65 teams actually merit a shot at the national championship? No. 1 teams are undefeated against No. 16 teams. This is about as competitive as the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals before the fans caught on. The NCAA tournament hasn't been around that long, so audiences can be forgiven if they haven't caught on yet. On the other hand, considering the drop in ratings in the early rounds, maybe a few of them have.

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I know there are a lot of you out there who aren't taking tonight's Paula Jones-Tonya Harding fight seriously, but I think you're making a big mistake. Tonya may be giving away several inches in height and reach, but she can hit with either hand and not since Pernell Whitaker have I seen a fighter who can slip a left jab like this girl. I know, I know what you're saying: Paula Jones packs a wallop in either fist and goes to the body like nobody's business, but I have a strong hunch that in the late rounds Tonya's tenacity will wear her down. Let me put it this way -- I think it was a little early for Paula to spend all that money on a nose job.

Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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