The sports world’s biggest crapshoot, the NCAA Tournament, starts this month, so we can expect the usual media outpouring about brackets.
I use the word crapshoot both literally and symbolically. The NCAA Tournament first became big because its counterpart, the NIT, was caught up in a point-shaving scandal and it has since thrived on gambling, both professional and amateur. And, as a way to determine the best team in the country, it is hopelessly flawed.
In the late ’40s, the NIT was the major tournament, the NCAA Tournament an afterthought. When the 1949 USF Dons, coached by Pete Newell, won the NIT, they were regarded as the national champions.
But in 1951, the college game was rocked by a point-shaving scandal involving the sport’s biggest stars. The NCAA propagandists blamed the environment of the big city Madison Square Garden, supposedly populated by gamblers who paid off the stars. The NCAA, played in smaller cities, became the major tournament. It didn’t matter that, in 1961, another point-shaving scandal hit the sport. The NCAA had won the war.
The danger of point-shaving is gone, but not because players are getting more from their schools; the NCAA strictly monitors how much they get, which is very little. Agents have filled the void. They identify players who are likely to become pros very early, sometimes as early as their sophomore years in high school, and sign them up, sometimes paying them along the way. When they’re eligible for college, the agents tell them which schools to attend to get the most attention. Most of these players stay only one year, until they’re old enough to meet the NBA standard, and then sign for the really big NBA salaries.
And yes, this is all against NCAA rules, but the NCAA spends its time going after the minor violators, like St. Mary’s, because those running the organization know they have no means of finding the really big offenders.
Meanwhile, another source of gambling has focused even more attention on the NCAA Tournament: the office pools. People who don’t even follow college basketball get caught up in the excitement of these pools. In offices, there’s continuous talk of “brackets,” and the media goes along with this by talking of “bracketology” and RPIs, a way of rating all the schools involved in this chase.
It doesn’t matter that the people in the office pools know relatively little because, as the field has expanded to its current 68, the chances of upsets have expanded exponentially. One year, Arizona finished fifth in what was then the Pac-10, but won the NCAA Tournament. That just illustrates how unpredictable college basketball is. We saw two examples of that Wednesday night when Cal was upset by Stanford and UCLA by Washington State.
The media, though, loves March Madness. One local columnist has proclaimed the two weeks of the tournament the most exciting of the year and the month the best for sports. My choices would be (1) the Major League Baseball postseason; and (2) September, when baseball is in its final month and both the NFL and college football seasons are beginning.
But tough luck. There are no office pools for those sports.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.