These days, whenever an athletic director, school president or conference commissioner begins talking about the state of college athletics, he should finish his comments by saying, “I’ll be here all week. Don’t forget to tip your bartenders and waitresses. And try the veal.”
It’s a comedy routine these days for the people in charge of big-time football and basketball, as they try to convince the audience that any strides made by athletes will ruin the integrity of their “amateur” pursuits, all the while accepting colossal bags of money from TV networks, sponsors and boosters that help finance successful (they hope) programs designed to promote the schools. Any time a player dares to suggest that the situation is not equitable, fat-cat administrators fall back on the myth that college sports are somehow pure.
Take Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, whose conference will bestow as much as $40 million on each of its members by 2017, thanks to gargantuan TV contracts. Earlier this week, he was quoted by espn.com’s Ivan Maisel in an article that heralded how prepared Delany is for the upcoming changes in college athletics, i.e. even more bags of dough arriving, courtesy of the new football “playoff”. Delany was responding to the outlandish idea that athletes should have a say in what happens to them and the recent news that some are attempting to form a union to guarantee full scholarship benefits and the right to negotiate with ADs and presidents regarding working conditions. Threatened with the loss of some of that TV and playoff lucre, Delany invoked the time-honored image of Biff’s sitting in the malt shop, wearing his letter sweater, a stack of books next to his milkshake, and an adoring Suzie sitting across from him, wondering how life could get any better.
“What I’m confident about is that the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are,” he said. “The less collegiate we are, the more I think the environment we are in is going to be challenged.”
There must be some kind of handbook distributed among college administrators containing that shameless treacle. Unfortunately, many fans hear Delany and nod their heads, thinking he is championing the old-fashioned ways of college sports. Were Delany’s words to be accompanied by a close-captioned translation, they might read a little differently.
“What I’m confident about is that the more we continue to rake in the big bucks through the same channels that professional sports leagues do, we’ll be all right. As soon as we let the athletes have any of the dough or some sort of say in how we do business, we’re screwed.”
Delany’s comments are particularly trenchant as the NC2A basketball tourney cranks to life. (Yeah, El Hombre knows it started Tuesday night, but the pigtail games don’t count.) Fans of the three-week festival of hoops had better spend every minute possible with it over the next few years, because there can be no doubt it’s going to change at some point. Once the big schools decide that they are done sharing any of their collegiate sustainability with smaller institutions, they are going to secede from the NC2A and form their own money-printing enterprise. Once that happens, the tournament will no longer be the wild and crazy ride it has been.
Ask yourself this question: Would you rather see a first-round (El Hombre refuses to call the Thursday/Friday games “second round” contests) matchup between North Dakota State and Oklahoma or one between Mississippi State and Clemson? You want the big underdog from a state where high school ball is still played on dirt courts, and citizens still point excitedly at airplanes when they fly overhead, not the boring meeting of name brands. Once the fat cats break away, those fun days will be over. Good-bye to Valpo, Dunk City and Lehigh. Say hello to drab contests between mediocre big boys. The East, Midwest, South and West regions will be renamed Greed, Avarice, Lust and Plunder. And a wonderful event will be ruined forever.
Enjoy it while you can, folks. Because collegiate sustainability will certainly prevail in the long run. The difference between now and then will be that athletes and fans will be abused once the separation occurs.
With all of that in mind, and the pigtail games out of the way, here is a primer on the 2014 tournament:
The Whining Whiner Whines: When he isn’t looking like he just bit into Charles Barkley’s shoe or ripping into refs whenever the camera isn’t trained on him, Duke coach Mike Disingenuous likes to crusade for truth and justice in college basketball – or at least pursue his evil agenda. His latest shots were directed at the Atlantic 10, which somehow cast a wicked spell over the Selection Committee and secured six spots in the tournament. Coach D was upset that those schools didn’t go through the “meat grinder” that ACC teams did. He has a point, since nothing is tougher than two games a season against Virginia Tech and Boston College. Wouldn’t it be nice if Coach D spent a season simply directing his team, rather than burdening us with his pursuit of publicity and self-aggrandizement?
Mr. Dangerfield: You have to love Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who has somehow made his team into a maligned underdog, despite its 34-0 record and number one seed. Had the Shockers zipped through the season unbeaten and been seeded fifth, Marshall would have a case. Just because some people wonder whether you would have stayed pristine if you played in the Big Ten or Pac-12 doesn’t mean you have to jump on the same disrespect train that every team and athlete rides. Play the games. Win the games. And stop looking for artificial means of motivation. If your players aren’t ready to play by now, they don’t have a shot.
Wild West: If you’re looking for the bracket most likely to be blown up like someone voting against Crimean secession, check out the West. Arizona is fun to watch, but the Wildcats don’t shoot it that well from behind the arc and don’t hit their free throws at the highest rate. Wisconsin is fun to watch offensively, but the Badgers don’t D up like they usually do. Creighton was made to look quite ordinary by Providence in the Big East final, and the last time we saw San Diego State, it was part of a poster series for Dunk City. Don’t be surprised if Baylor or Oregon comes out of this region.
Paging Big Pink: Nothing is more fun in the first couple rounds than big upsets – unless you’re on the losing side. The Big Names had better keep some Pepto on hand, in case disaster strikes. Here are some Thursday/Friday surprises: Stephen F. Austin over Virginia Commonwealth; North Dakota State over Oklahoma; Providence over North Carolina; Louisiana over Creighton; Tennessee over UMass.
Finally: And your Final Four: Florida, Michigan State, Arizona, Duke. Championship game: Florida 74, Duke 71.
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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Reports are that Houston and Chicago are the frontrunners for the services of CarMElo Anthony, once the machine-gunning forward opts out of his Knicks contract – or new president Zenmaster Zenny tosses him to the curb. You know what that means? One of those teams isn’t going to win a title for a looooong time…Even though he issued a statement saying he is withdrawing from this weekend’s Arnold Palmer Invitational, expect Eldrick Woods to show up anyway and take some hacks, if only to show everybody how much his back hurts. Fred Couples had serious back troubles for years, but he never once gave even the slightest indication he was in pain. If Woods so much as twists the wrong way, he drops his club and grabs his back as if someone has just hit him with a nine iron. What’s that? Oh, sorry…Serial bully and equal-opportunity abuser Richie Incognito has left therapy and announced he is “ready for his next victim”, er, “anxious to get back on the football field and help a team win without berating or harassing any teammates”. Yeah, that’s it…Organizers of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar are denying reports that they paid as much as a million pounds to a former FIFA vice president to secure the games in their God-forsaken pile of sand. Qatar World Cup head Louis Renault said, “I’m shocked, shocked, to learn that bribes have been paid.” Just another day in the land of FIFA, which makes the Medicis look pristine…espn announced that Chris Fowler would be replacing Brent Musburger as its lead announcer on college football broadcasts. Musburger needn’t worry. He’ll handle games on the new SEC Network and serve as a chaperone at the National Cheerleading Championships. Oh, my…A swarm of bees descended on Wednesday’s exhibition game between the Red Sox and Yankees, delaying action and leading espn to issue a press release that announced even the “insect world is fired up for baseball’s greatest rivalry”. The network then added 19 more New York-Boston games to its primetime schedule, bringing this season’s total to 112.
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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Since the Phillies’ cast of Old Timers isn’t likely to mount a serious charge at the NL East title, local fans will have find their drama in other places besides the standings, like by participating in a pool to see which one of the nine 35-plus players on the team gets the first endorsement deal from Celebrex. Better still, they can watch the season-long standoff between manager Ryne Sandberg and shortstop Jimmy Rollins. A 10-and-five man who has the ability to veto any trade the Phillies try to make, Rollins won’t leave town under any circumstances, and may just hunker down in the clubhouse bathroom – George Costanza-style – rather than change addresses. Rollins needs 434 plate appearances this year to vest his $11 million salary for 2015, and it will be interesting to see whether Sandberg tries to limit Rollins’ activity. With contention unlikely, that subplot will certainly be more interesting than watching Ryan Howard flail at lefthanded pitching or listening to Chase Utley’s knees decay further.
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AND ANOTHER THING: The Philadelphia 76ers have lost 22 in a row and probably wouldn’t warrant a five seed in the CBI tournament, but they aren’t the only NBA team committed to securing the best possible Lottery position in the June Draft. All over the league, teams have gutted their rosters in the hopes of putting the worst possible menagerie of basketball “talent” on the court every night. The result is a league bottom-heavy with pathetic franchises and a precious few clubs capable of contending seriously for a title. What’s worse is that a Draft once thought to be 10-15 deep with NBA-caliber talent doesn’t look so overwhelming anymore. Because of that, the teams that have tanked (and there’s no other word to describe what’s going on) have consigned themselves to misery for several seasons, if they emerge at all. It’s time for the NBA to enlist its best minds to find a way that ensures this kind of stuff never happens again. Get to work, folks. This must be stopped.