The New York Times Magazine had a cover story a few weeks ago that posed the question: Does college basketball matter? In answer to this rather existential question, I thought, well, it depends to which college basketball they are referring.
Are they talking about the game that’s “all about the Benjamins,” including exorbitant coaches’ salaries and shoe contracts (why, for heaven’s sake, should the coaches, not the schools, profit from these deals?), the sponsors of every item or space that could be sold, and the television contracts?
Are they talking about the shady recruiting practices that serve the coaches, the bottom-dwelling and predatory scouts, AAU coaches, summer camps, and boosters?
Are they talking about the fans who, in my view, care far too much about something that is really just a game?
Are they talking about the universities that seem to worry little about the graduation rates of its players (other than those enforced by NCAA rules and regulations), yet have tremendous concern for their piece of the conference and NCAA revenue pies?
Are they talking about college basketball that is about the one-year visit to a college campus by a wannabe NBA superstar because the NBA no longer allows players to turn pro out of high school, unlike every other sport, I might add (these players, who may have prodigious talent, but often lack the technical and tactical fundamentals of the game, are akin to the 40% of incoming college students who need remedial classes because they lack the basic skills to succeed in college)?
In other words, are they talking about a system that cares little about the student-athletes who actually play the game?
If that’s the college basketball that the article is referring to, then my answer is: Never has, never will. That game of college basketball doesn’t deserve my attention or interest, much less my fanatical absorption, even during March Madness. To devote my time and energy to such a corrupt game would be to legitimize and validate its worth in a world where my time and energy are needed elsewhere.
Or, are they talking about the game that allows young basketball players to pursue their dreams, whether a career in the NBA or a seat at the end of the bench on 68th team to make it to the Big Dance?
Are they talking about the mid-major conference teams, such as Butler and VCU, that have been crashing the party and sending the big-name, much-hyped teams home with their tails between their legs?
Are they talking about the unsung heroes, such as Matt Howard, who show that fundamentals and selflessness can trump solo ball and ESPN highlight slam dunks?
Are they talking about the heart-stopping misses (and makes), the come-from-behind victories, the overtime wins, the nail-biting finishes that keep college basketball fans on the edge of their seats?
Are they talking about the wonderful experiences, powerful challenges, and life lessons that college athletics can add to students’ university lives (I can speak first-hand about its tremendous value)?
Are they talking about college basketball that understands its place in the grand scheme of life as a sometimes-compelling, though ultimately unimportant, form of entertainment and vicarious involvement that can be appreciated and enjoyed by anyone who chooses.
If that’s the college basketball that the article is referring to, then my answer is: always has, always will. That game of college basketball deserves my interest and attention. Though as someone who would rather participate than spectate, that interest will only be periodic and short-lived. But for real fans of this game of college basketball, more power to them and may the best team win.