Column: Don’t Mess with March Madness

Driven by greed, NCAA threatens tournament perfection
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

March Madness is one of the best sporting events of the year, every year, on a very short list with the Super Bowl, the World Series and the Olympics. But March Madness is the most inclusive – and, in some ways, the purest.

The tournament’s 65 teams came from 31 states this year. Schools like Gonzaga and Winthrop, Lehigh and New Mexico State all got to play.

What separates March Madness from the other events is that we get to play, too. Every office runs a hoop pool, and the winner is never the ESPN-addicted sharpie in sales, but the receptionist who picks her teams based on her favorite colors. It’s a beautiful thing.

This year’s March Madness had it all – early round upsets, like Northern Iowa over Kansas; traditional powers like Michigan State and Kentucky advancing to the Elite Eight; and a title game for the ages.

In this corner, you had the three-time champeeens: The Duke Blue Devils, whose coach wondered why his school wasn’t more popular. Yes, why aren’t obnoxious rich kids from New York more popular? Got me, Coach!

And in this corner, you had the upstart Butler Bulldogs from Indianapolis, who had never been to the Final Four. They play their home games in the very arena where they filmed the movie “Hoosiers” in 1986, and where Milan High School played that actual game, in 1954.

All the experts said Duke was going to blow out Butler, but the game went back and forth all night. In the final seconds, Butler’s wonderboy, Gordon Hayward, dashed down the court to launch a last-second half-court shot – but it bounced off the rim, just off the mark. Duke won by two – the closest final since Michigan’s overtime victory in 1989.

It was one of those rare games where both teams came out the better for it. For the fourth time, Duke earned a national title, and for the first time, Butler earned national respect.

The TV ratings were the best in 11 years. So the NCAA, in its infinite wisdom, was not content to say, “It is good.” No. That’s for suckers. It said, Gimme gimme gimme.

Instead of leaving perfection alone, the NCAA is poised to add 31 teams and another week to the tournament. If you wonder why, you have to remember the NCAA’s holy trinity: Greed, Hypocrisy and Stupidity.

March Madness is already the biggest money maker in the history of college athletics, by far. Every year, CBS pays out $700 million to the NCAA, in exchange for 10 days of basketball. The coaches are millionaires, and the players are students. Where’s Karl Marx when you need him?

But $700 million is not enough. Why? Because, to the NCAA, it is never enough. It reminds me of an exchange between Homer Simpson and his boss, Monty Burns. When Homer says, “You’re the richest man I know.” Burns says. “Yes. But you know, I’d trade it all for just a little more.”

Some things in sports are perfect: 90 feet from home plate to first base. 100 yards on a football field. And three weeks for March Madness.

If the NCAA adds a fourth week, they’ll give us a lot of bad teams playing bad basketball, and ruin the rhythm of the tournament for everyone. How are you going to fit 96 teams on a single sheet of paper to fill out your bracket?

None of this will stop the NCAA, because nothing – not billions, not perfection, not fair play – has ever stopped the NCAA.

March Madness might be the best sports event of the year. But the NCAA is going to trade it all, for just a little more.

Now that is madness.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.

One Comment

  1. April 9, 2010 at 12:51 pm | permalink

    Great essay John! Heard it on the radio this morning too.