I have a particular interest in that piece not just as a basketball follower but because I also once wrote a piece for The Nation critiquing college sports, titled "Bad as They Wanna Be" back in 1998. That said, the tone of Zirin’s piece leaves me uneasy and on at least one major point, entirely unconvinced.
There is a strange disconnect between descriptions of NCAA basketball as a sheer exploitation machine and the observed fact that the participants in March Madness seem highly invested in and excited about their teams’ success. It’s quite wrong to imply that the athletes are getting nothing out of this arrangement: They get the benefits and satisfactions of testing themselves in competition and practicing their athletic craft at a high level. In theory, they also get the benefits of a college education and a chance to change their life trajectories.
Should they also get financial benefits? I certainly think so. Zirin calls for athletes to get stipends; I favor that, and also favor athletes in the revenue sports getting a substantial lump sum payment upon graduation.
Is it also the case that too many athletes are not getting the full benefits of the college education promised? Certainly, especially at the biggest schools, in the biggest sports. But many athletes are in fact having a good experience in the classroom and on the field, in the non-revenue sports and outside the quasi-pro big schools. Some are even having good experiences within the biggest sports factories. And the fact is, March Madness pays for a great deal of it—including thousands of opportunities for women athletes.
And is it not also the case that too many athletes, especially males, are getting too many benefits of the wrong kind—that is excessive social adulation that sometimes translates into problematic behavior and attitudes of entitlement? Yes, that is a real phenomenon and danger too.
These are reasonable questions to raise. But Zirin, in his recent writings, seems bent on adopting an “abolitionist” position—he wants to abolish the NCAA, calling it a “corrupt cartel.”
This is not a well-thought out position; and in the context of his article, it’s illogical.
Consider Zirin’s five proposed reforms. The first is providing athletes with compensation protections in case of injury (I agree); the second and third are requiring institutions to offer athletes four-year scholarships and giving athletes stipends (I also agree). The NCAA in fact already requires athletes to have health insurance (either family-based or provided by their schools) and also provides a catastrophic insurance policy for athletes, and in the past couple of years has actually shown openness towards movement on the latter two issues. This is not to say the current insurance programs or proposed reforms are adequate, but there is no inherent reason why the current NCAA structure could not implement these reforms (especially if pressured to do so, a point I will return to below).
Zirin also says ceilings should be placed on coaching salaries so as to fund the stipends. I’m not opposed, but am not sure this will do what Zirin claims. No calculations are provided to show that this move would be enough to cover a substantial stipend; the real areas to look at costs savings are in bloated athletic bureaucracies and in the arms race to build bigger and better stadiums and facilities.
Finally, Zirin says the NCAA should be abolished. And replaced with what? Zirin doesn’t say. This is a problem because the stipend and scholarship reforms he favors each presume the existence of a governing body that can compel institutions to agree by a common framework of rules—the essential function the NCAA performs.
Zirin does say he thinks the pro leagues in football and basketball should fund their own minor league teams, and not leave the job to colleges. It’s a nice thought, but it is on par with saying that it would be nice if we could abolish the U.S. Senate because it over-represents low-population states.
That is to say, the idea doesn’t take seriously a couple of key facts. First, millions of people are highly invested in their college sports teams—not just those big-contract coaches or fat cat university donors, but ordinary people, the kind leftist writers claim to be in sympathy with. Second, one cannot wave a magic wand and undo more than a century's worth of evolution of a country’s particular sports culture and replace it with something one thinks better.
Now perhaps Zirin doesn’t intend for these minor leagues to actually replace college sports. After all, minor league baseball and college baseball co-exist. (Which raises a question: Does Zirin really think an 18-year-old is better off forgoing college altogether to embark directly in a pro athletic career that is likely to be short?) Even if you had minor leagues funded by the NFL and NBA, they would not replace the role of college sports in the American sports landscape.
The reality is that college sports are here to stay, simply because they are too important to too many people (not all of whom are rich and powerful elites). And so long as you have college sports, you need a governing body. Indeed you need a governing body that is far more assertive and proactive than the current NCAA, but it’s hard to see how doing away with the current NCAA is going to get you something better.
REYNOLDS COLISEUM/RALEIGH N.C. State will try to finish its season on a good note with some success in the WNIT, but the Wolfpack’s first-round assignment isn’t an easy one.
The Wolfpack of course needs victories to assure its second straight winning season as charismatic senior guard Marissa Kastanek ends her college career, playing tonight in her school-record 132nd game.
Richmond has a couple of locals on its roster. Junior guard Amber Nichols (Broughton) is a reserve while sophomore forward Amber Battle (Middle Creek) is out for the year with injuries.
It isn’t easy, but the Wolfpack rallies in the final four minutes to escape with a 60-55 victory.
Although the newly expanded WakeMed Soccer Park was unveiled at last month’s friendly between the RailHawks and Vancouver Whitecaps, the Pumas match provided the first true opportunity for the facility to flex its logistical muscles. The night after approximately 1,000 curious observers ventured out to watch an early evening Pumas practice session, a new RailHawks home attendance record 8,054 (mostly Pumas) partisans packed the park, filling seats from the outer reaches of the North Stand to the top tier of the upper deck. With a nip in the air, noisemakers—both human and artificial—rang out from end zone to edifice, usually in service to Club Universidad. And those who couldn’t make it to the game had the opportunity to view the first match of the new year broadcast locally on WRAL2 and 99.9-HD3 under an expanded TV and radio partnership between the RailHawks and Capitol Broadcasting Company.
Duke is exactly in the spot most people expected for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament opening this weekend.
And maybe UNC got a nice surprise.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels were the only teams from North Carolina in the field when the 64-team bracket was announced Monday night.
But a half-dozen North State teams got come consolation a few hours later, as N.C. State received a bid to the WNIT along with East Carolina, North Carolina A&T, Davidson, UNC Charlotte and Appalachian State.
The No. 5-ranked Blue Devils (30-2), carrying the automatic berth from their ACC Tournament title, got the No. 2 seed in the Norfolk Region and will host MEAC champion and No. 15 seed Hampton (28-5) on Sunday at 12:05 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The No. 13-ranked Tar Heels (28-6), who were the ACC runners-up, received the No. 3 seed in the Bridgeport Region and will take on No. 14 seed and America East champion Albany (27-3) on Sunday at 2:40 p.m. in Newark, Del.
The NCAA committee didn't exactly hand any of these schools a break. A&T has been forced to participate in what used to be known as the "play-in" game, now rebranded the "First Four." The First Four consists of four games, two involving teams like A&T that didn't win their league regular season but snuck in the field by winning their conference tournament, and two games involving the final four at-large teams admitted. The Aggies must get by Liberty, the only team with a losing record this year, champions of the Big South.
The Sagarin college basketball ratings make A&T (No. 242) a one-point favorite over Liberty (No. 260). The reward for winning would be a date with Louisville in what quite ridiculously is now called the "Second Round." Sagarin has Louisville as a 27-point favorite in such a matchup. The best team the Aggies have played this year is Cincinnati—a 54-point loss early on. Later A&T did play major conference teams Texas Tech and Seton Hall much closer, losing by 11 in each case.
Davidson's 14-seed is due to a weak schedule. But at 25-7, this Wildcat team knows how to shoot and how to win. Davidson hasn't lost since Jan. 14, and already has played Gonzaga and Duke reasonably close, losing by 14 and 17 points respectively. Sagarin makes Davidson out to be just a six-point underdog against Marquette, who probably wasn't thrilled to draw the Southern Conference outfit on the 14 line.
Then we have the local ACC teams. Despite finishing second in the ACC regular season, many projections last week had Duke as a likely 1-seed. The loss to Maryland in the first round of the ACC Tournament Friday ended those chances, and now the Blue Devils face a potentially challenging road to the Final Four. In the Sweet 16, 3-seed Michigan State could be waiting, and 1-seed Louisville could be there in the regional final (if they can get by A&T or Liberty, of course). The Spartans are as ever a bruising outfit that could cause Duke problems, and most people think Louisville is now playing the best ball in the nation.
But you never know what's going to happen along the way; perhaps upsets in the other side of the bracket will clear the way for Duke to make it to Atlanta without having to spring upsets of their own. The task this week is to get by Albany and either Creighton or Cincinnati. North Carolina faced Creighton in the round of 32 last year and some Tar Heel fans are still bitter about the foul that ended Kendall Marshall's season. Those same fans would surely put their bitterness aside and cheer on the Bluejays against the Blue Devils if the teams meet.
For what it's worth, Duke is 18 points better than Albany, according to Sagarin. Duke would be favored by just four over Creighton and six over Cincy in the second round.
North Carolina State needs to at least match its Sweet 16 run of a year ago to avert the sense that this season was an opportunity squandered. The Wolfpack have been given a tough row to hoe as an 8-seed, despite being ranked No. 25 by Sagarin. State plays Temple in the East region, with Indiana likely waiting in the wings in the second round.
The good news for NCSU is that Sagarin makes the Wolfpack a healthy four-point favorite over the A-10 Owls. Temple has quality wins over VCU and Syracuse, but lost to Duke by 23.
A good effort by State should see them into the second round, setting up an intriguing matchup with Indiana. The two schools met early in the 2011-12 season with the Hoosiers overturning a halftime deficit to prevail by 11. Sagarin makes Indiana out to be a six point favorite if the teams play this year.
This leaves us with North Carolina. The Tar Heels fell to an 8-seed despite being ranked No. 19 by Sagarin (and similarly in the RPI ratings), either due to lack of a signature win over an elite team or because CBS wants to market another Jayhawk-Tar Heel game, depending on your sense of how the committee process actually works.
In any case, the Heels have no choice but to get on with it. Sagarin makes Carolina out to be a three-point favorite over Villanova. Nova has had an up and down season but owns big wins over Louisville, Syracuse and Georgetown. They are not a great shooting team; the question of this game is going to be whether Carolina's potent offense can overcome Villanova's stingy defense (rated 24th nationally by Ken Pomeroy.)
Should Carolina win and should Kansas somehow manage to overcome Western Kentucky, strictly speaking Kansas would be a five-point favorite in the Third Round (Formerly Known as the Second Round).
That might seem manageable, but consider that the game would be played in Kansas City—and Sagarin's method adds four points on to the home team in making predictions. Really then, you're talking about Carolina trying to win as a nine-point underdog.
A tall order, but there is some precedent in recent history. The last two times Carolina made the tournament as an 8-seed—2000 and 1990—the Tar Heels knocked out a 1-seed (Stanford and Oklahoma, respectively) to advance to the Sweet 16.
If the Tar Heels can tap their shoes together three times and repeat that history, little girls across Kansas next Sunday night will be telling their dogs, "Toto, we're not in the NCAA Tournament anymore."
Anytime you hear North Carolina fans say, “We lost, but I’m proud of our effort,” you know the Tar Heels must have played very well. A fanbase with extraordinarily high expectations typically doesn’t absorb losses gracefully, but today UNC earned praise from even its most irrational supporters despite dropping the ACC Tournament final to Miami 87-77.
The Hurricanes defeated UNC three times this season and beat them in historic fashion during the game at Miami. Carolina thus regained its pride this afternoon, earning a slim second half lead before tiring at the end and failing at any point to stop the Canes’ relentless offensive machine.
Miami held the decisive hand throughout the game. Sophomore guard Shane Larkin scored a career-high 28 points and added seven assists and five rebounds. He continually beat UNC off the dribble at the point of attack and either scored himself or kicked to open teammates. When Roy Williams opted to play a zone defense to rest his team and protect his players against foul trouble, Larkin effortlessly scored against that setup as well.
P.J. Hairston did his part to keep UNC competitive. The sophomore from Greensboro brought joy to local fans and the Carolina crowd at large, scoring 28 points of his own. Freshman Marcus Paige struggled defensively against Larkin but scored 17 points and continues to mature as a playmaker.
Given how well Miami executed its offense — the Canes shot 51 percent and 55 percent on threes — UNC couldn’t withstand Reggie Bullock’s 3-for-14 shooting performance. The Heels’ small lineup also ceded a 36-28 rebounding advantage.
Moving on, the NCAA Tournament field will manifest beginning at 6:00. And within an hour after that, the national basketball audience will have forgotten this game and every other conference tournament result. Bracket mania (i.e., socially encouraged gambling) will dominate chatter this week, and all three Triangle teams are expected to make the field.
From a local perspective, everyone wonders if Duke’s loss to Maryland on Friday will cause the Blue Devils to drop from a No. 1 seed to a No. 2. The Wolfpack appear headed for a spot in the 8-9 range, while UNC may have played its way to a No. 6.
But before you bin memories of the Carolina/Miami ACC final, click here to view the box score.
North Carolina survived a determined effort from Maryland this afternoon at the ACC Tournament, fending off the Terrapins 79-76 to win the season series 3-0. The Tar Heels didn't shoot as well as they did versus Florida State on Friday, but Reggie Bullock and Marcus Paige hit key shots late to fend off a squad desperate to earn a berth into the NCAA Tournament.
N.C. State failed to make Sunday's championship tilt an All-Triangle affair. The Wolfpack battled gamely versus top seeded Miami, but the Hurricanes created sufficient separation to fend off their challenger 81-71. Miami's starting backcourt dominated the scoring and responded positively to each NCSU run.
Tomorrow afternoon, UNC will attempt to win its first conference tournament crown since 2008. Miami previously outlasted the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill and then embarrassed them in Coral Gables last month. For UNC, then, the contest represents an opportunity both to reclaim some pride as well as win the conference tournament hardware.
Seeded No. 2 entering the weekend, the Devils shot just 4-for-25 on threes, forcing too many contested shots and failing to establish inside-outside balance. Maryland also pummeled them on the glass and enjoyed a lead ranging from 7-10 points for most of the second half.
The big question pertains to NCAA Tournament seeding. Duke had expected to claim a No. 1 seed, and while that remains a possibility other conference frontrunners could leapfrog them and push the Devils to a No. 2.
Meanwhile, No. 3 seed UNC and No. 5 seed N.C. State both advanced to today’s semifinal round.
The Tar Heels dispatched Florida State by a surprising 83-62 margin. Reversing their atrocious shooting performance versus the Blue Devils, the Heels knocked down 10-for-22 on threes. They also limited themselves to seven turnovers and forced the Seminoles into 18 miscues.
But Carolina didn’t escape Friday without drama. Sharpshooter P.J. Hairston cut the skin between two fingers on his left (non-shooting) hand, an injury that spilled blood copiously onto the Greensboro Coliseum court and resulted in eight stitches. His status remained uncertain heading into the semifinal.
Earlier on Friday, Mark Gottfried’s Wolfpack thrashed Virginia 75-56. State’s place in the NCAA Tournament was secure prior to the weekend, but defeating the No. 4 seed in such resounding fashion likely won the squad a better spot when the selection committee announces the seeds on Sunday evening.
State torched UVA from deep, burying 8-for-16 on threes. The Pack also demonstrated a greater commitment to defense than they have for much of the season, stifling the Cavaliers to 38 percent shooting.
The Wolfpack play Miami this afternoon in one semifinal, while UNC will battle Maryland.
It's a good time to indulge in some nostalgia, because this is the last iteration of the ACC Tournament in which the league's remaining seven original members constitute a majority of participants. After Maryland departs, only six of the original schools (the Big Four plus Virginia and Clemson) will remain, and there are expected to be three and perhaps four new members on board next year.
But it's been a pretty good run the last 59 years, even if the tournament has lost prestige and interest in the past generation. Here's a look at your top 14 most exciting tournaments (the top 10, plus ties) from 1954 to 2012, presented in chronological order.
Yes, top-seeded Miami and Duke are the odds-on favorites. But unlike the top-heavy tourneys of yore, at least five teams—including North Carolina, N.C. State and Virginia—enter this weekend with a realistic hope of winning the ACC conference crown.
But no matter who cuts the nets down this Sunday, more ink will again be spilled chronicling and diagnosing the ongoing erosion of the college basketball conference tournament. Whenever articles are written on this subject, however, the true objects of lament are really the major conferences. Small and mid-major tournaments are thrilling as ever, as schools in the Ohio Valley or Big South tournaments aren’t just playing for conference glory; they’re fighting for their one shot at the Big Dance.
While major conference tourneys continue to publish capacity attendances, actual turnstile figures and the basic eyeball test tell a different story. The ACC released sold-out attendance figures for the 2010 tournament in Greensboro, but the average turnstile number per session was only 15,690. Despite changes in ticket allocation between the member schools beginning in 2011, empty seats pervaded Philips Arena in Atlanta throughout tournament weekend last year, particularly the perennially poorly-attended Thursday sessions.