EDITOR’S NOTE: In this piece originally published on TomDispatch, Robert Lipsyte gives a lesson in Hoopla 101, and the way the NCAA taints athletes and the schools for which they play.
1. Opening Shot
“Success is a Choice.” — Rick Pitino of Louisville (seeded #6 in the South region for this year’s March Madness), first coach to lead three different teams to the Final Four.
This is the mud season of the sports calendar. While we await blessed baseball and its promise of renewal, here comes the National Collegiate Athletic Association Men’s Division I Basketball Championship–the Big Dance for sportswriters, the Bracket Racket for gamblers, a frat-rat party, a racist entertainment, and a subversion of higher education, perhaps democracy as well.
Calling it March Madness slaps lipstick on a pig.
But we’ll call it March Madness, too and get down in the mud.
2. Beyond a Foul Line
“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” — C.L.R. James
Fifty years in the biz and I can almost remember the college basketball games I’ve covered, there were so few of them. High school games seem authentic (although that’s changing). Professional games are performance art. But there is something so bogus about the selling of Division I games as the pure passion of an adolescent school spirit that I begin to think of sneaker sweatshops and the boy soldiers of Sierra Leone; and, next thing you know, I’m clicking around for Law and Order. It’s my problem and I should know better.
After all, I was born and raised in New York City in the time of the ur-scandal–when stars of the 1951 City College team were indicted for “shaving” points, taking money from gangster gamblers to win games by narrower margins than the betting lines. That they could do it so well was a testament to the dominant way they controlled their games. They were that good.
My Dad, who had graduated from City in 1927, felt betrayed. Like many children of immigrants in New York, City College had been his launching pad and, at 100, he was still talking about classes he had taken there.
The City College scandal was one of the few events that C.L.R. James, the great Trinidadian historian and social analyst, could not grasp. In his classic book on cricket and the world, Beyond a Boundary, he wondered how these young men could betray their universities unless “they had no loyalties to anything.”
I found that ingenuous, a word he asked me to delete from the introduction to his book I wrote years later. I did, of course. Long after that, I heard something I wish I could have shared with him. One of the former City players, Norm Mager, told me: “You’re talking about kids, kids who were busting their humps while the school was making a ton of money. And everybody else was doing it. It could get messy out there when the other team was shaving, too. We’d know when we purposely threw away a pass, and we’d get it right back.”