War Minus the Shooting: Amateur Hour

Now that the NCAA tournament is over, sports chatter will finally be able to turn to where it belongs — the beginning of baseball season — and away from a bunch of teenagers playing bad basketball.

This year’s college hoops championship game was a dreadful affair by any reckoning, but even in the best of times, I’ve been unable to figure out why collegiate sports of any kind exercise such a powerful hold over the public imagination.  I understand why they’d be popular with a school’s alma mater; I played baseball in college myself, and occasionally check in on how the old side is doing.  I also understand why college athletics are popular with the school administration; they’re the biggest cash cows on campus.  What I don’t quite get, despite decades of having it ‘explained’ to me, is why anyone other than a graduate (or an athlete’s family) would care about college sports.

Sports, after all, is one of the only true meritocracies we have.  It’s almost singular as a field where, as a general rule, the best rise to the top, and success is based purely on ability.  90% of the athletes in any college sport simply aren’t that good; they stand little to no chance of advancing to the professional leagues.  If your interest in athletics lies in watching the best possible teams pit their skills against one another — and why on Earth wouldn’t it? — then the professional leagues are what you should be watching.  Certainly I won’t argue that there’s no such thing as a bad pro contest; I wouldn’t wish the L.A. Clippers on my worst enemy.  But, having said that, the worst player on the Clips is better than the best player on half the teams who make the NCAA tournament, and the team as a whole would likely dominate any team that’s made it to the Final Four in the last three decades.  Simply put, watching college sports is literally amateur hour; in any major sport you can name — football, baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer — the worst pro teams are more accomplished, more skillful and more enjoyable to watch than the best college teams.

Why, then, would anyone bother?  The reasons I’m usually given ring false to me.  Much is made of the ‘purity’ of the game; this strikes me as the same sort of bafflegab one hears from old baseball sentimentalists yammering on about ‘intangibles’.  Maybe the college teams are playing for the love of the game, but until that starts showing up on the stat lines, I frankly don’t give a shit.  The idea that amateur athletics are infused with a sort of nobility that stems from their lesser quality — sorry, their ‘fundamentals’ — also seems bogus.  The cultivation of aesthetically pleasing amateurism belongs in the realm of art, where it can be judged by non-objective standards.  Why spoil one of the only meritocracies we have by introducing excuses for a lack of skill?  It may be admirable for someone to cultivate the ability to hit 100 free throws in a row, but no one wants to watch that on TV.  At this point, with ethical standards endemic to the system, billions of dollars spent on college athletic programs and funneled through legal and illegal gambling, and the pervasive influence of money and status no longer subject even to the pretense of ignorance, surely no one will argue that there’s anything more morally pure or honest about college sports; professionals, who tell no lies about playing the game for money, seem to me the honest ones.  And the more people who watch college ball, the more corrupt it becomes, meaning that its fans are part of the problem, no matter what their intentions.

Over and above this, there’s something mildly embarrassing, verging on the pathetic, about grown adults who obsess over college sports.  Sports fans of any degree are hard enough to talk to, but can you imagine having a meaningful or even tolerable discussion with Mel Kiper Jr.?  What must the lives be like of the ex-jocks in their mid-40s who are paid to hang around college campuses, trying to coax an interesting comment out of a 19-year-old power forward?  (It’s ridiculous enough we ever interview athletes at all, since we don’t pay them because we think they have clever things to say.  But the mind absolutely reels at the notion of how much air time is wasted each year gathering the wisdom of a hulking boob whose coach pays someone to sit through his gut classes.)  What could possibly be more dreadful than the pretense that one knows enough about all 68 college basketball teams in the NCAA tourney to make a remotely reasonable guess about their performance?  Only actually knowing enough.

It’s not quite as pitiful as caring about prep sports; grown men spending their timing hanging out in a high school locker room, asking a 15-year-old to analyze his on-field performance for their fellow lunatics, are beyond pathetic and well into depressing with a handful of creepy thrown in.  But while I know that nothing will diminish my fellow sports fans’ mania for college ball, I’ll be damned if I’ll ever understand it, and the second week in April will ever remain one of my favorite weeks of the year, because that’s the time we can finally stop pretending to give a shit about what a bunch of future washouts from Bumfuck State are capable of accomplishing, and go back to watching the grown-ups play.

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  1. Monty
    04/05/2011 at 1:35 AM

    I agree with everything you said but, this happens because college football and basketball were popular way before the pro game was. Baseball was a popular professional sport first which is why the college game is not popular at all and huge huge money loser for most universities. That is also why there is some form of pro baseball in almost everywhere in the country. In football in basketball the pro game was popular after the college game. Pro football didn’t become a big deal until after “the greatest game ever played” and for basketball it wasn’t really until Bird and Magic. I wish like the rest of the world our focus would be on professional game and stop letting our love for collegiate and scholastic sports cripple our education system but, it is what it is right now.

    • LP
      04/05/2011 at 11:28 AM

      True enough — collegiate sports used to fulfill the function that minor league baseball did. But it’s like the electoral college now, an archaic hangover that’s ended up distorting the whole system.

  2. Nate P.
    04/05/2011 at 6:18 AM

    “I wouldn’t wish the L.A. Clippers on my worst enemy.” Dude! Blake Griffin! I actually went to a Wolves-Clippers game just to watch him go berserk. (The game itself was actually a cavalcade of garbage in its non-Griffin/Kevin Love moments, though, so your point isn’t entirely invalidated.)

    My #1 theory for why people care about March Madness is that the whole elimination bracket construct gives people an excuse to find a structured outlet for their gambling and/or prediction-based office hijinx. It’s a lot like the Oscar pools except it takes twenty times as long.

    • LP
      04/05/2011 at 11:31 AM

      There’s no question that gambling is a huge part of its appeal, probably the biggest. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t buy the whole “purity of the game” conceit; there’s so much money wrapped up in it, and for every point-shaving incident we hear about, there’s probably a dozen we don’t.

  3. Ed
    04/05/2011 at 7:28 AM

    I agree with the general point and I would much rather watch an NBA game than an NCAA game. But there are a few things about the college game that make it appealing. First is the game is still played at a pretty high level, last night’s debacle being something of an exception.
    Most college offenses are more team-oriented and balanced than pro offenses. That means fewer plays where the rest of the team stands around watching the superstar go one-on-one. That just makes for more enjoyable viewing.
    The tournament is done in less than 3 weeks, as opposed to the 2 months the NBA takes to crown a champ. The one-and-done makes for a more compelling show.
    That’s about all I can come up with.

    • Josh W.
      04/05/2011 at 8:11 AM

      I take your point. In fact, I take all points which point out the flaws in sports fandom. I follow sports obsessively and have no defense for it.

      That said,

      College basketball works for me. Ed hits a lot of the arguments I’d make for it. Conference and national tourneys are over in a few days or weeks and are always high-stakes single-elimination. There’s a nice overall structure to Division I, too. I care about who is winning the big conferences and a few of the smaller ones. Then they are all thrown in a big pot during tourneys, and there’s no telling how they’ll react.

      The games themselves are easy, fun watching. They are usually done in two hours flat and flow really well. I personally can’t stand NBA games. There’s almost too MUCH talent. Why bother hustling around for a shot when most the players on the floor can just jack one up or zip past the defense for a look?

      All that said, yeah, enough with the interviewing of 18-year-olds. The coaches are smart but aren’t going to say anything worth hearing on camera.

      • LP
        04/05/2011 at 11:35 AM

        I guess I’m not really trying to talk anyone out of college sports fandom; you like what you like. I’m just resistant to all the qualities people cite in favor of it.

    • LP
      04/05/2011 at 11:34 AM

      I understand the appeal of the single-elimination format (it’s probably unavoidable with that many teams), but the argument for longer seasons and playoff series works for me: it prevents the better team from being punished for having a single off day. Anyone can win a single game (which, of course, I understand is the appeal of Final Four-type tournaments), but the better team will usually win a series of 5 or 7. Fluke wins are exciting, but I don’t find them particularly satisfying.

  4. John J
    04/05/2011 at 10:43 AM

    I can’t refute your argument, I’m just unmoved by it. You might as well ask why anybody bothers to go hear live music, when we can all stay home and listen to the London Philharmonic in pristine high-fidelity.

    Reasons to like March Madness: single elimination heightens the drama; a lot of different styles are on display; the amateurism of players and coaches makes upsets more likely. (You call it a bug, I call it a feature.)

    A game of basketball is fair and meritocratic, but the sport as a whole? I don’t think it’s objectively knowable. Obviously there’s lots of circumstantial reasons to believe that right now Kobe Bryant is better than Jimmer Fredette, but it’s at least open for discussion.

    Good comments here. US college hoops and football are unique, because they got that historical headstart. It probably helped that until the 1950s big league baseball was East Coast biased and ignored large parts of the country. Certainly the NCAA is increasingly hypocritical and anachronistic, and major changes may be underway.

    • LP
      04/05/2011 at 12:12 PM

      I resist the musical analogy, because as I said, whether or not you like live music more than recorded performance is a matter of taste and subjective factors, but whether or not the San Antonio Spurs are better than the Wisconsin Badgers is pretty objective.

      I honestly don’t see how you can argue that it’s open for discussion that Kobe Bryant is better than Jimmer Fredette, or that the reasons why people think he is are “circumstantial”. Put Fredette in Bryant’s place and it’s almost certain he will do worse; put Bryant in Fredette’s place and it’s almost certain he will do better. If Fredette makes the pros, compare their stats, and you’ll have an objective answer. If he doesn’t, look at Fredette’s college stats in light of the level of competition he faced. There’s just no comparison. Fredette is a great college athlete, no doubt, and he may go on to become a great professional one. But right now? Bryant has surpassed Fredette’s best-scoring season three times, playing against the best players on the planet. He has more RPG than Fredette’s best year 12 of the 14 years he’s been playing, more APG than Fredette’s best year for half his career, and he’s played more minutes per game — on an 82-game schedule — for the last dozen years than Fredette has his whole career. Bryant has five national championships; Fredette has none. Fredette has scored 40 points in a game three times; Bryant has done it a hundred and eighteen times. And Bryant has done all this playing against the likes of the Spurs and the Celtics; can you honestly argue he’d do worse if he was playing the likes of the Vermont Catamounts? I just can’t see how you could possibly say that it’s open for discussion that Fredette is better, except in the speculative sense that he may go on to a better pro career than Bryant, and even that’s tremendously unlikely.

  5. Rob
    04/08/2011 at 9:04 PM

    A couple of points:

    First, with respect to the NBA, while I think you’re correct about the current state of competition/ability in the pro circuit vis-á-vis college hoops, what about what happened in the 1990s? The heyday pros of the 1980s – Bird, Malone, Mullin, Wilkins, Ewing, even MJ – were either retired or on the downslope of their careers. (Jordan still had some great years left, but he was pretty much the only holdover.) In the meantime, expansion (Charlotte Hornets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Miami Heat, Orlando Magic, Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies) diluted the talent pool significantly. The game changed from one which relied on team-first play and ball movement to some version of playground basketball. There was little in the way of execution, and offensive output suffered (which is doubly amazing, given the strength of defensive-minded players in the 1980s such as McHale, Rodman, Michael Cooper, Olajuwon) – from a high of over 110 points per team per game in the mid-80s to around 92 at the end of the 1990s.

    Meanwhile, in the NCAA, you had some amazing teams to watch, such as Michigan’s Fab Five, a couple of great Duke championship teams, the insane and insanely talented UNLV squads, a return to championship glory by UCLA, and the rise to prominence of some fantastic coaches (Coach K, Jim Boeheim, Tarkanian, Tom Izzo, etc.) I’m not going to argue that the 1992 Duke basketball team would have taken down even the expansion Charlotte Hornets, but I for one would have rather watched the college boys play during those years.

    Interestingly, dilution doesn’t seem to have affected the NHL at all. No one watched the sport before Gary Bettman destroyed it through expansion, and no one watches it now. (Insert sad chuckle here.)

    I don’t think that I can make a case for preferring college football or baseball over the pro version, in any era (outside of an alumnus’ rooting interest), but I would throw this in: I don’t understand why anybody watches Major League Soccer in the U.S. (Forget about college soccer…that’s not even televised, anyway.) The talent level in the European leagues is so far beyond what’s available stateside that it’s no wonder why the sport hasn’t caught on here.


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