Op-Ed: March Aside, College Basketball Has Lost Its Madness
March Madness is officially here. Starting Tuesday, 68 college teams will compete for a spot at the NCAA men's championship on April 8. As millions across the country fill out brackets and enter office pools, this season has left longtime sports columnist Dave Kindred yearning for the good old days.
In a piece in The Washington Post, he argues that college basketball has lost its way.
"Maybe I'm speaking more as a writer than as a college basketball fan, because the lack of richness in the stories today is what bothers me," he tells NPR's Tom Gjelten.
Read Dave Kindred's Washington Post piece "Instead Of Madness, We've Got March Sadness."
Kindred, a member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame, says that even though college basketball still generates a lot of buzz around the water cooler for three weeks in the spring, the regular season doesn't captivate viewers like it used to.
"The college basketball player of the year could be someone that I couldn't tell you three things about," Kindred says. "And that's the sadness in it."
Kindred traces this shift back to 2005, when the National Basketball Association set an age limit, requiring players to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school.
"That rule has made many of our great universities into a little more than prep schools for the NBA," Kindred says. "Players coming out of high school are 18. So of course, they have a year in which they must find something to do. Some of them may be on campus for four months, may be on campus five months, but they're not really college students."
Kindred says that now that players quickly bounce out of college teams and into the pros, they no longer leave a mark with the school. Fans don't have the opportunity to really connect.
"We don't have time to understand who they are, to really get to know them, to build an epic story around them," Kindred says.
He misses following NCAA greats like Larry Bird and Magic Johnson throughout their college careers and cheering for them as they enter the big leagues. He misses stories like the Duke Blue Devils' Christian Laettner, who played at Duke four full years and played in four consecutive Final Fours.
"You came to love and, in many instances, hate Christian Laettner. That kind of story doesn't happen now because we don't know the nuances of the story."
It's not only the stories that Kindred misses. He says the technical aspects of the game have made it less pretty to watch.
"I know I sound like a guy talking about the good old days, but, in fact, a whole lot of basketball people agree that the game once was built on speed and grace. Now it's much more on power and physical defenses. And I don't like that as much."
He thinks that though some dedicated fans pay attention for the whole season, casual fans have been overcome by college football.
"College football has succeeded in convincing the public that each week's game matters, matters a lot," says Kindred. "All of those conferences have changed in the last two or three years ... and it's all in pursuit of the huge money that a college football season produces for television."
Kindred says that despite all of the changes he's still as excited as ever for this year's Final Four in Atlanta. "There is more parity than ever," he says. "Maybe 10 teams can win. So there'll be great interest. There's no doubt of that. It's just that the regular season has lost its luster.
"That makes the tournament right now the chance to redeem what I see as the failings of college basketball."
TOM GJELTEN, HOST:
And now, the opinion page. With Selection Sunday behind us, March Madness is officially here. But for long-time sports columnist, Dave Kindred, this year, it's more like March sadness. He says this season of college basketball has been quote, a long, fitful snooze - and that the college game just isn't what it used to be. Kindred says the NCAA has plenty of great players but he's missing the epic stories that used to make March Madness the season a sports fan lived for.
Listeners, we want to hear from you. Do you think the NCAA tournament is shaping up to be a snooze? What teams, players or stories are catching your attention? Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can always join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org, and click on - tick TALK OF THE NATION. So Dave Kindred is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. He clearly knows what he's talking about. His op-ed ran in The Washington Post on Friday. He joins us now from member station WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION, David.
DAVE KINDRED: Thank you, Tom. Thank you very much.
GJELTEN: You're right, once we lived for mass - March Madness, it was the final thrilling chapter of a winter's tale filled with heroes, fools and other dreamers, but you say no more. What has changed?
KINDRED: Several things have changed, Tom. I think the point that I try to make in the piece is that there is no season-long story anymore. We had Larry Bird. Larry Bird came into our consciousness - and now I'm talking 30 years ago, of course. Bird was there at Indiana State. You know, it's a charming Cinderella story. But he - we saw him for three years. We saw Magic Johnson coming. Now, the great players - because of a rule change in the NBA, come and are gone in a year. We don't have time to understand who they are, to really get to know them, to build an epic story around them.
Christian Laettner, for instance, played at Duke four full years, 148 games, four Final Fours, you know. You came to love and, in many instances, hate Christian Laettner. I worked in Kentucky for a long time - Kentucky people know what I'm talking about, Laettner, threw in one that is still a dagger in their hearts. That kind of story doesn't happen now because we don't know the nuances of the story. I think that, you know, maybe I'm speaking more as a writer than as a college basketball fan, because the lack of richness in the stories today is what bothers me. But - I'm sorry.
GJELTEN: No. I just wanted to understand, again, what you said at the beginning. You think the factor here is that presumably the NBA is grabbing these guys before they get a chance to really play out their whole four years, and therefore they're taken away from us just as we're getting to know them, is that rule change, is that specifically what you're talking about?
KINDRED: Yes. Exactly. Happened in 2005, took effect in 2006. Great players, you know, Kevin Durant, John Wall, Anthony Davis - great players who've made a mark in NCAA tournament, and with their schools coming are gone in a year because the NBA instituted a rule that said you had to be 19 years old to join the league.
KINDRED: Players coming out of high school are 18. So of course, they have a year in which they must find something to do. They go to college, so to speak. Some of them may be on campus for four months, may be on campus five months, but they're not really college students. That rule has made many of our great universities into a little more than prep schools for the NBA. Players will come and go. That wasn't so until 2005. That's changed. But then the whole game of basketball has changed, too. It's a different game. It's much more physical. It's not as pretty to watch. You know, I know I sound like a guy talking about the good old days, but, in fact, a whole lot of basketball people agree that the game once was built on speed and grace. Now it's much more on power and physical defenses. And I don't like that as much.
GJELTEN: Well, Dave, Gary has a question for you. He's calling from out in Moses Lake, Washington. Gary, what's your question for Dave Kindred? What do you think about what he's saying?
GARY: Oh, I just wanted to comment that it's kind of - the NCAA is getting kind of boring, but we're pretty excited about it here in the Northwest with Gonzaga, the little school of 4,000 students being number one in the country. And they're starting the tournament this week, so we're excited about it.
GJELTEN: Well, number one...
KINDRED: I know, Gary. I took a shot at Gonzaga in the piece, you know, such as: Does anybody know where it is? You know, it's somewhere out there. The fact is, I well know where it is. Hyperbole serves my purposes, many times. In fact, the first basketball game I ever saw was Gonzaga against Bradley, where I'm sitting right now. And that was a long time ago. So I'm well familiar with them. At the same time, Gary, I have to admit, I couldn't name you one player on your team.
GJELTEN: But, you know, that's an interesting point, Dave, because you're talking about basketball as if it's all about individuals and not about schools, not about teams. Maybe as the, you know, the interest in individual players has diminished, you know, we still see this phenomenon of interest in teams, in schools.
KINDRED: Well, my...
GJELTEN: I think the Gonzaga example illustrates that perfectly.
KINDRED: It does. You know, my great pal John Feinstein, who writes for The Post, said if you're interested in the glamour names, this is not your kind of season. But if you're interested in the games, it's very much your season. Another friend, Mike DeCorsi at The Sporting News, says that college basketball is widely popular, never been more so. And I think what they are seeing is that basketball - college basketball, specifically - has become a niche sport. You know, people who are interested in it are really interested in it.
The casual fan now is bombarded with so much, so many other things - you know, most specifically college football - that college basketball becomes an also-ran. College football has succeeded in convincing the public that each week's game matters, matters a lot. The regular season in college basketball doesn't do that anymore. The only thing that matters now is the tournament. Every game is judged during the season by what it means for the tournament.
So that makes the tournament right now the chance to redeem what I see as the failings of college basketball and that we hope that there's great excitement and there will be.
GJELTEN: And you are looking forward to the tournament.
KINDRED: Oh, much - very much so. There is more parity than ever. Maybe 10 teams can win. Maybe 30 or 40 different teams can get to the Final Four. So there'll be great interest. There's no doubt of that. It's just that the regular season has lost its luster.
GJELTEN: Well, you quoted a couple of your fellow sportswriters. Here's another one, Mike Wise. He says: This year's tournament has the potential to be the most wide-open, seat-of-the-pants thrill ride of all time. That's not the kind of story you're looking for, though.
KINDRED: Well, I think that's entirely possible. I mean, I think that there is great parity. You know, when the great players are gone, other players step up, the competition will still be even. There are no powerhouses anymore. There's no UCLA dominance. Even Duke - I mean, Duke may be the number two team in the Midwest. Duke could well win it all, yet they lost, what, four or five days ago to Maryland. So nothing is sure. Anything could happen.
So it's not - again, the headline on my piece is a little misleading, that it's not a sadness, but it's just that I expect the tournament to matter more than this regular season when, in the past, regular seasons mattered greatly.
GJELTEN: Well, Dave, I got a couple of listeners who actually agree with you 100 percent. Here's what Aaron has to say. He's from Louisville. I'm going to be in a bad mood for the rest of the month. Along with most listeners from Lexington, Kentucky, the University of Kentucky Wildcats really let me down this year. The salt in the wound: the Cats are having to play their first NIT game in a small arena because the NCAA tournament is occupying their home - the home court. Ouch.
OK. Well, he's disappointed in his own hometown team. But let me read you this email from Nathan: I used to be able to tell you multiple facts about multiple players for multiple teams going into March Madness. This year, I can't even tell you who's made it into the tournament.
KINDRED: Well, I think that is - that's the point I'm trying to make, Tom, that I have made. I believe that, you know, once upon a time and not that long ago, I thought I knew everything about college basketball. Today, I almost know nothing about college basketball. A lot of that is the influence of the media. The media, especially ESPN, has been overtaken by college football. A player we never heard of before the season started, Johnny Manziel, became a rock star celebrity in the space of one season.
That doesn't happen in college basketball anymore. The college basketball player of the year is - could be someone that I couldn't tell you three things about. And that's the sadness in it.
GJELTEN: Well, actually, I don't entirely believe you, Dave, because you're a professional sportswriter, and I'm betting there are a few college players out there who actually do standout for you, who you're probably going to be watching in this tournament and writing about.
KINDRED: I more likely will write about teams. I agree with one of your earlier callers. There's that old Jerry Seinfeld line: The players come and go. We root for the laundry. You know, I still root for University of Louisville. My first real job was in Kentucky. And I can just imagine what the pain that they're going through there now. With Kentucky out of it, Louisville may win it all. It would be fun to be writing in Louisville this week - this month.
GJELTEN: Let's go now to Charlie, who's on the line from Charleston, South Carolina. Charlie, what's your view of the tournament this year?
CHARLIE: Yeah. You know, as you guys touched on earlier, I'm actually really excited about the parity and the fact that I think any team could win. I know there was a stretch in the middle of the regular season where several number one teams were - lost, you know, in consecutive weeks. And I think going into the tournament as a fan without really a horse in the race, I'm excited to kind of see how this plays out over the coming weeks.
GJELTEN: Well, you know, Dave, this is interesting, what Charlie has to say, because you may - one of the points that you made is that it's one thing to be interested in college basketball during the tournament time, but something else to be interested throughout the whole season. And the truth is that a lot of people do make picks during tournament time and get all excited about, you know, bracketology and really sort of the idea of making picks. And that may not reflect their genuine and deep interest in college basketball as a sport.
KINDRED: No. It's a whole different thing. This month or the three weeks of the tournament becomes an entity onto itself. You know, it becomes an office pool. It becomes water cooler chatter. It becomes, did you see what happened in the Midwest. You know, and all of that is great. All of that is what I used to experience in the season, during the season. You know, but now, that kind of intense interest exists only in the last two weeks of March, the first week of April, unless you're - unless you live in Durham, North Carolina, unless you live in Louisville, Kentucky. Certainly, there are spots in the country where college basketball interest is as great as it ever was.
I just think the big picture is that college football has taken over the media spotlight, and everything else pales. I mean, the NFL is - I read a story the other day, Tom, someone doing a mock draft for the NFL two months ahead of the real draft. You know, that kind of, you know, unflagging interest in stuff that once upon a time meant nothing to anybody is what's happened with - football is ubiquitous and omnipresent now.
GJELTEN: Dave Kindred is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Hall of Fame. You're listening to NPR News. And the - what do you - how do you explain the important - the rising importance of football, Dave? Is that - does that have to do with that's where the TV dollars are?
KINDRED: I think so. That's what - I didn't get into it, Tom, because, you know, the casual fan ignores conference realignment, but that's what happened. Every conference that we grew up with, that we're familiar with - you know, let's say you're over 40 years old. All of those conferences have changed in the last two or three years. And all of the changes, the big 10 going to 14 teams, the ACC adding Louisville, you know, Boise State being invited into the Big East, all of that stuff has changed the landscape, and it's all in pursuit of the huge money that a college football season produces for television. So television, you know, promotes its own interests, and that's where the money is now
GJELTEN: Well, Dave, we have a bunch of calls here that are not about players, but they are about schools. I want to go now to J.T., on the line from Cincinnati. J.T., what are you following this season?
J.T.: Well, I'm a Kentucky fan by trade. But since I don't (unintelligible) horse in the race, I find this tournament to be extremely interesting this year because it's up for grabs. And like your speaker's saying, there's a lack of stories. I really don't care much about individual storylines. Kind of like the Tiger Woods thing. I don't care what he does with his personal life. He entertains me with golf. And, like, there's a lot of great - like, the point guard in that one division with Miami, with Larkin, could he even possibly get face off against (unintelligible) from Indiana? I mean, I think there's a lot of really good basketball storylines. Maybe the personal storylines are gone now, but I find it really interesting this year.
GJELTEN: OK. Dave, maybe the idea is here, you got to be a real sports fan to appreciate the nuances, here.
KINDRED: I think you do. You have to have a great emotional investment in it from, what, October through now, and that that doesn't happen for the casual fan, I don't believe, because we're just so overwhelmed by college football.
GJELTEN: And can I ask you about your own bracketology this year, Dave? Who are you predicting to win each of the four regionals, and who are you predicting to go all the way?
KINDRED: I was afraid you'd ask that. I was afraid you ask me to pretend I'm an expert on that. In fact, I was sitting here earlier, thinking about what might happen. I like Louisville in the Midwest. I like Florida in the South, Indiana in the East and Wisconsin in the West. And Wisconsin is typical of the kind of basketball that I hate. You know, Wisconsin will - they'll play defense. They'll rough you up. You know, they'll win their games, like, 51-49. And to me, that's not basketball anymore.
GJELTEN: Dave Kindred...
KINDRED: But I think they're going to win. They'll be in the Final Four.
GJELTEN: But not Gonzaga.
KINDRED: Well, I'd like to see Gonzaga there, just because I have that one little emotional investment with them.
GJELTEN: OK. Dave Kindred is a long-time sports columnist. He currently writes for Sports on Earth and Golf Digest. His commentary ran in the Washington Post on March 15th. You can find a link to it on our website: npr.org. He joined us today from WCBU in Peoria, Illinois. Dave, thanks for coming on today.
KINDRED: Thank you, Tom.
GJELTEN: And tomorrow, 50 years after the Supreme Court affirmed the right of criminal defendants to have attorneys, we'll look at how public defenders work. Join us for that. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Tom Gjelten, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.