Sports Were Better When I Was a Kid*

Sports are happening right now. Sports are always happening. But this is the month when the big college basketball tournament happens. March Madness! Except the Final Four is actually in April. But hey, why let facts get in the way of Branding, sponsored by Pepsi and brought to you exclusively by the ESPN/ABC/Disney family of networks (who bought those rights for a trillion dollars.)

When I was a kid I watched so much sports. But it all seems so icky and evil now. The NCAA is evil. The NFL is evil-er, and that period of my life when I wrote a lot about the NFL left me rather unhappy. So I willed myself to start following soccer again, which I hadn’t done seriously since my brief college soccer career ended. But FIFA is currently in the process of literally killing people to hold its major tournament in a country that has no business hosting the tournament, and which is only doing so because of widespread and poorly-hidden bribery.

Maybe the answer is in following smaller leagues. I’ve been following Motherwell FC, a small club in the Glasgow suburbs, this year — they’ll never get bought by oil billionaires and turned into the New York Yankees like my last favorite soccer team. So maybe the answer is in smaller leagues, and the non-money college sports like college baseball and soccer (men’s and women’s) and track and field and women’s basketball — the sports where the students are actually students, there are fewer ridiculous things like national websites ranking and rating sixth graders.

The thing is, the NCAA has done an incredible job turning its two big money sports — football and basketball — into events with literally-month-long championship seasons. The college football championships really begin in December with the early bowl games — and now there’s a playoff to extend it a little further. With March Madness it’s explicit. And the NCAA and team/school officials and brands make exorbitant sums of money off of this, which many smart people argue means the athletes should be paid, too, because the NCAA’s claims of amateurism are a sham. I chafe at this, because it would expose the lie that these kids are anything but hired mercenaries playing a year or two or three before leaving to try to make it in the big-time. (Which a shockingly small fraction actually succeed in doing.) Because remember, for example, University of Maryland basketball does not really represent the state of Maryland. It’s mostly teenagers, largely from out of state basketball factories, brought in for a couple of years to play in exchange for a scholarship and under the table benefits.

I think that the better answer is to take the money out of it, remove the brands and the sponsors and the big money TV contracts, let the sports be less “successful” financially but more truly amateur. The future NBA and NFL stars can go to some truly professional development league, but let the colleges be colleges and let the students be students. This will never happen, of course.

So meanwhile, go Steelmen.

*This post was initially titled “Everyone Needs to Lose, Except for Those Who Need to Win” and was intended to be an examination of rooting for the underdog, inspired by this Vox article. But then I got on a rant, so here we are.

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