I’m not the first columnist or blogger to announce to the world that the NCAA has an image problem. By now, it’s brutally obvious, what with the Terrelle Pryor/OSU scandal topping the list of blemishes against the NCAA over a myriad of other issues. Plain and simple, the NCAA has chosen to adopt the approach of unaccountability, under-supervision, and acceptance of the utter disregard its constituent universities show towards its already-flaky set of rules. With Congress giving them a tough run for their money, NCAA executives are currently leading the race for least trusted and most despised public figures in America (source: Conor Murphy).
It’s almost depressing to consider the way the NCAA and media attempt desperately to turn prima donnas into role models. After watching the NCAA Lacrosse playoffs, I started to consider myself a failure, having never saved an entire village from famine or accomplished a feat of similar magnitude. Apparently, a bunch of players on the field at any given time had done so, or at least made a valiant attempt, while a substantial number of their best friends sat on the sidelines for “undisclosed disciplinary reasons”. (NB: I have the utmost respect for the way the UMD team overcame their adversity, and this is in no way meant to be a criticism of that team or the media’s paying attention to that story). The fact of the matter is that enough negative stories have surfaced over the years that the NCAA’s propaganda, across all its sports, isn’t fooling me anymore, and I suspect there are more and more fans soon to join my camp.
Am I going to stop watching? No. I have a blog to write. Will the casual observer? Maybe. So if I were running the NCAA, I’d be deep in the process of developing alternate strategies to make the on-field (court) product better, and the depressing behind-the-scenes stories a little bit easier to take. Of course, the governing body of the NCAA is probably not doing this, but I am (and therein lies the problem). I have an idea that certainly won’t cure the NCAA’s problems, but it might just help lift its image a little bit.
The fundamental problem facing the NCAA, as I see it, stems from the perception that its highest achievers don’t particularly care about wins and losses as much as the money they are due to earn during and after college. The clearest current instance of this perception proving its accuracy is the Ohio State football program, perhaps soon to be dethroned by Oregon. Terrelle Pryor absolutely would have loved to win a national championship. But a bunch of cars, free tattoos, and cash wasn’t a bad outcome, either. The same applied to a few of his teammates. He disappointed his fans, and proved his critics unequivocally correct. And yet, there was one game this season that really mattered to Terrelle and the rest of those guys. No, I’m not talking about the Sugar Bowl, despite all the bright lights and money (of the legitimate variety) on the line. Of course, it was the Ohio State-Michigan game. Each year, that game means as much to the players as it does to the fans – an increasingly rare occurrence in major college athletics, these days.
Now, besides perhaps Duke and Chapel Hill, I’m not sure there’s a college basketball rivalry equivalent to Ohio State-Michigan football, but there are still plenty of excellent rivalries. These enmities produce exciting games and, more importantly, raw rare emotions in the players. Even if most of the players on the court will be making millions in the future, during that game, only one thing matters: beating Duke (UNC). Many converging factors lead to the intensity between Duke and UNC, and all rivalries for that matter: history, coaches, fans, the public vs. private dynamic. But intertwined into it all is the territorial dominance, and the recruiting reward that comes with it. This, perhaps more than anything, spurs the rivalry, even in less exciting years.
On a lesser scale, the preservation of clashes between Philadelphia’s “Big 5” (Villanova, St. Joseph’s, Temple, UPenn, LaSalle) each year has fostered heated inter-conference rivalries that would not otherwise exist. In any given year, three of the Big 5 teams might not harbor NCAA tournament hopes, but they still have plenty to play for on at least four nights of the year. And while those games might not garner national attention, rest assured that all of Philadelphia watches on the edge of their seats. Mind you, I give the NCAA zero credit for this. It is the universities comprising the now-defunct “Big 5” that see the need for local rivalries to be hashed out on the hardwood. Apparently, those 5 institutions are alone.
This leads to my question: Why doesn’t the NCAA mandate that such (potential) rivalries be contested each year? Or further, why don’t the schools themselves volunteer to play the games? Consider Washington DC’s potential “Big 5”: Georgetown, Maryland, George Washington, American, George Mason, among others. That’s as strong as or stronger than Philly’s. The passion and excitement are there, just waiting to be let loose. Why not let them to battle it out for bragging rights in one of the most fertile recruiting grounds in the nation? Sure, Georgetown is going to trounce American 90% of the time, but at least there would be a bit more intrigue than the 70 point blowouts of no-name West Coast schools are able to offer season’s ticket holders. And an upset might actually mean something in the beginning of the season. More attendance, more passion, more intrigue, more stories to which the fan desperately wants to shift his/her focus…unfeasible? I am more than willing to listen to the rebuttal that satisfies the average fan.