March 25, 2001

BackTalk: The Meaning, If Any, Behind The Madness


Unnecessary anxiety over the future of Bob Knight and Rick Pitino overshadowed the early rounds of the N.C.A.A. basketball tournament for me. They're not kids anymore; these are adults, role models. If they don't continue the executive privilege of failing upward, the economy could be in a dangerous losing streak after all. Life is a metaphor for the Final Four. Forget about those hoop-happy young men and women scrapping for their schools, for our viewing entertainment, for the propagation of Budweiser. They're not what March Madness is really all about.

So, what is it about?

Beats me.

March Madness is not about affirmative action, despite the presence of so many predominantly black teams representing predominantly white colleges. This is an issue that is either no longer deemed newsworthy or, as Jon Entine called his provocative book on sports and race, "Taboo." It's a variation of an old tale – call it the emperor's new complexion – that could only be brought up by an innocent.

Enter my father, a lifelong sports nonfan. Three years ago, when he was 94, his remote jammed on a channel showing college basketball and he was mesmerized by a game he hadn't watched since the 1920's at City College. He had spent much of his professional life in the education of poor, troubled minority boys. He was thrilled by the lesson he took from the games; youngsters who could work so hard together, pass so brilliantly, follow such patterned plays, he told me excitedly, could easily be integrated into college studies with some remedial catch-up to make up for second-rate schooling. He ordered me to get on the story.

I explained that such a take was totally counter to sports' conventional wisdom and corporate practice, and could only embarrass us both. Last year, at 96, taking a rest from shoveling snow, he discovered the women's college game, which he likes even better. The calls started again, this time about the superiority of women in collective endeavor.

Thank goodness Bob Knight began reappearing on TV in recent weeks after Texas Tech publicly recruited him. Dad and I could get back to discussing abnormal psychology.

March Madness is not about hypocrisy, for which something positive needs to be said. I think I picked it up from one of the books or journals Dad makes me read. Hypocrisy is good because it offers hope. The hypocrite is of two minds, knowing that something is wrong but doing it anyway. Thus, there is always the possibility the hypocrite will straighten up and fly right.

There is no evidence that Knight, who seems either clueless or in deep denial, or Pitino, charmingly comfortable with his grandiosity, is a hypocrite. Bob Costas's TV interview of Knight, in which he disarmingly asked the coach if in 30-odd years his strict standards had ever crossed the line into abuse, was as revelatory as a tantrum. Knight looked puzzled by Costas's professional ingenuousness. Of course it has never crossed the line, Knight said.

Pitino, who has been called classy and charismatic in places he hasn't been yet, is perceived as the rainmaker who will turn a program around; a celebrity coach gets celebrity high school players who need a year or two on national TV before jumping to the pros. Pitino, the new Louisville coach, grandly said: ''Now it's my time to lead the Cardinals back to prominence.''

March Madness is not about progress. If it were, we would change it. We would be free to wonder why we were stuck with basketball and football as ways to build school spirit, keep the scholar-customers tranquilized until graduation, get quick cash and build a nonintellectual bridge to the townies. How about stock car racing? Kids love cars, especially fast ones that crack up every so often, and the fee to put your logo on a fender being bent by a scholar-driver should finance the new infirmary. Intercollegiate Nascar is the next new thing. Too bad the dot-coms crashed; they would have subsidized the circuit. We'll settle for I.B.M. sponsoring the Yale car, Kraft the University of Wisconsin car, Ray-Ban the Pepperdine car – you get the idea.

Maybe March Madness is about academic freedom. Every era has its athletic villains. In the 1920's, sportswriters inveighed against mercenary ''tramp'' athletes. By the 50's, it was agreed that tramp coaches had hired them. The 60's saw the start of the long, evil reign of the shoe companies, who were replaced by the people who let them in, the university presidents.

Current perceived villains are those faculty members, the tramp star professors and the tenured clock-watchers alike, who determinedly ignore the plagiarized papers, doctored grades and fraudulent eligibilities that keep blue chips on the table. Their complicity is exposed by a handful of daring guerrillas from such places as Drake, Tennessee, Indiana and Rutgers who have challenged the power of the athletic departments to make decisions affecting academic integrity. Most recently, some faculty members at Texas Tech (about 100 of 900) sent a petition to the president objecting to Knight's candidacy – unsuccessfully, as it turned out. Nothing comparable happened at Louisville, presumably thrilled with its latest Moses with a whistle.

Ultimately, I think March Madness is only about low comedy. Here is my current favorite nonrisque ''Prairie Home Companion'' joke, which Dad likes, too.

Question: How many basketball players does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Answer: The whole team and everyone gets credit for the semester.


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