The Bastardization of the NCAA

On a lighter note, Chris Yeh and I will be chatting at 7PM EST about Kobe Bryant and the Lakers, we’ll be broadcasting live for those of you not already on vacation. Feel free to put questions or thoughts in the comments or Tweet to @nerdnumbers or #wagesofwins and we might discuss them on the show!

Totally not the same…

Barry Petchesky at Deadspin recently wrote a piece on Jack Taylor’s 138 point game, which is now an NCAA record. It turns out that the NCAA is a bit of a hot button for me. Let’s review some things that make it easy to be upset with:

  • Young people are exploited and work for “free” (again, just because money changes hands doesn’t mean it’s not essentially free. Would you drop your salary to a penny a day? It’s still pay right?)
  • The money saved by exploiting the players is distributed among a few at the top.
  • This is done because sports is an entertaining activity that people like to watch.

So when I see another writer mad about the NCAA it has to be one of these reasons, right? Nope! Barry is mad at the players! Barry starts out:

It is just the latest incarnation of Grinnell’s decades-old strategy of seeking media attention for records achieved through a complete bastardization of basketball.

We’ll get to the bastardization comment shortly. What strikes me as odd about this quote is the attack on seeking media attention. In spite of the lie that recruitment restrictions help parity (see Shabazz Muhammed) the truth is that the NCAA is ruled (in terms of winning) by some elite schools.

So, if you’re a school that isn’t Duke and want to make money off of media attention, what’s wrong with playing a game that gains media attention? And why would the players go along with this? Well it turns out scoring points is what gets players drafted!

The Pioneers actually have a winning record and that Jack Taylor’s 138 points came off of very good shooting (~60% true shooting) In fact, Barry mentions this!

 Taylor shot 49 percent from the field, 38 percent from three. These are the only figures that ought to matter when judging his evening

First off, this is a lie. Believe you me, I am well versed in the mythos surrounding high point totals. Simply shooting well is not treated the same as scoring a lot of points (and put the two together and people go nuts.) In fact, the high shooting percent and total is very impressive! And Barry makes an even more bizarre comment too, when he compares this to Wilt’s game

Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 points were also achieved through a concerted effort to get him the ball, but at least it came against NBA competition.

A player intentionally going for a record in competitive basketball is different than this? Wait, what? Barry is viewing this game through a very strange lens. And the reason is actually pretty simple. NCAA basketball is exploitation. I’m sorry, but when you spell out the situation, you can’t really sell it any other way. So how does it persist? Jonathan Haidt actually has the answer. In the Righteous Mind, Haidt discusses ways our morals have evolved and worked. I could do a whole post on them and the NCAA but I’ll focus on just one today.

Sanctity / Degradation One aspect of humans is to treat certain things or objects as pure or sacred. And this can cause those objects to be placed above other things. For instance, does the idea of burning an American Flag to keep warm if you are freezing strike you as off? Of course it won’t for all of you but for some it will. And that’s the point. When an object is placed into a sacred area, other considerations can fall by the wayside.

That’s how the NCAA keeps working. The game is sacred! It’s a tradition! Devin linked a perfect comic summing this up last week. And Barry’s piece shows this mentality. It’s a bastardization of the game to use a strategy that can win and scores lots of points? Really? It’s a sham for a team and players (who are baited with the carrot of reaching the NBA) to try and get attention doing things the NBA likes? Why? Well because, if we treat the NCAA as sacred we can ignore the ugliness underneath. And when teams start to blatantly pander to what the NCAA really is – high priced entertainment at the hands of exploited teenagers — then it’s hard to treat the game as sacred.

There are many things to be angry about when it comes to the NCAA. A player shooting well to get lots of points in a win isn’t one of them though. I’ll actually counter Barry’s outrage at this game. I hope more teams do this. Why shouldn’t they? It gets attention, it ups players draft stock and more importantly, it helps show the NCAA for what it is. Get to it gentlemen!


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