I want to confess that I harbor a resentment against the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Not against the tournament itself, though the NCAA is partly to blame for my loss of reverence for what has become such a mainstream, commercially saturated spectacle that the games in my opinion are unwatchable, every available nanosecond crammed with an advertisement plug for something I do not want, or a “program note” I do not care about.
When I reflect on what I like to think of as the “golden age” of the tournament, back in the days when, for a brief shining moment (gosh, I hope I’m not violating some silly-assed copyright with that phrase), my alma matter was a maverick force among the perennial tournament heavyweights, nobody much beyond the hundreds of college campuses across the country—especially those with competitive Division I programs—cared very much about the tournament, its competing teams, or it’s outcome. As part of that rebellious college generation of the 60s and 70s, I for one felt like it was “our” tournament, even if it wasn’t as serious as opposition to “our” war in Vietnam. (Even the music back then belonged to us. I remember I was never more diabolically pleased than the day I heard about the U.S. Senator or Congressman who declared that in the drum beat of Rock-and-Roll, one could hear the vile words of Satan! Play on, sweet muse!)
Even the TV coverage was almost amateurish. That’s not to put down the sports announcers and color commentators who covered the games back in those semi-innocent days. But it was as though these guys had been driving around in their news vans looking for a story to cover and they stumbled upon this intensely exciting little tournament of Cinderellas and Goliaths, got out their equipment and just started filming. I remember one sequence one year in the first round (there were only 32 teams back then) when the cameras jumped seemingly at light speed to three different heart-thumping buzzer-beater games in succession, one after another, as they happened in real time, and the whole nation got to watch it all on free TV. There were no TV or NCAA broadcast “rules” or “rights” as to who could see what when. Hell, most of the country didn’t care back then, but we did.
That’s all changed today. And as egalitarian as it may be that events like the NCAA tournament now for all practical purposes belong to everyone, such that once a year well-meaning, highly respectable yet college-basketball-clueless citizens fill out brackets as though they have made a lifelong career out of analyzing tournament outcomes; such that the coin of the realm is cheapened by the tournament having taken its rightful place among the premier generators of business for Las Vegas odds makers; and especially such that the television coverage has become such a gluttonous spectacle of glitzy product advertising excess of every description by greedy corporations masquerading as though they actually give a rat’s ass about the final outcome, I feel as though they have utterly and effectively taken the games away from the people who once really loved and understood their meaning—and who truly appreciated their pure, unadulterated competitive spirit. Whoever “they” are.
Yet perhaps my once rebellious generation is largely to blame for this. These days I find myself thinking increasingly, that we had a chance to change the world and we decided to go to mall instead; we went shopping at Target and Costco and BJ’s instead of going to Washington to change American culture and politics and society for the better, for once and for all. All that we preached and vowed to disavow at Woodstock and Haight-Ashbury and a thousand places in between, well, we reneged on all of that. Instead we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the consumerist lie that all of this stuff will make us happy, will make us a better, wealthier society with more “stuff.” And it seems to me now that the trivial things of the world have replaced the pure ideals of the world.