Call me an April fool all you want, but I come here not to laugh about the minor tournaments of the world but to celebrate them. Spreading the wealth can never really be a bad thing when it comes to college sports. Can it?
I was sitting here yesterday, a Friday night here in Eugene, and the Oregon Ducks had just won themselves a championship trophy in their first year under new head coach Dana Altman. By knocking off his former team, the Creighton Bluejays, Altman’s new set of young charges kept Ducks fans — both the short side of ten grand that were in attendance at shiny new Matthew Knight Arena on Friday and the rest of us paying attention in the greater community — focusing on basketball into April. For the first time in a long time the buzz wasn’t just about spring practices but that other major men’s team on campus.
And what did they win? The College Basketball Invitational, a postseason tournament two rungs below the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament proper. To most it comes off as the ugly stepchild of the family, with the once-glamorous NIT having devolved to that silver status. Call it the bronze of the pack, the Little Caesars Bowl of men’s basketball, but it is still something that the young men involved will remember for a lifetime.
These young men put themselves at the mercy of a merciless public all season long, all career long, through the grind of traveling and still serving some academic purpose on top of it all. Sacrificing the normalcy of an average college student’s life for the limelight and the tough hours behind the scenes that go into preparing for each showcase moment, they toil with little benefit. Another game, another chance to find that elusive highwater peak, one more showcase before graduating to the next phase of their lives – tournaments like the CBI and bowl games falling outside the purview of the BCS still provide ample reward to what are still mostly good young men who have given a part of themselves for our entertainment.
A lot of unsavory truths have come out in the all-to-recent past about the realities of the profit-generating college sports — how basketball and football players are being lubricated with greasy-palmed lucre, getting their rocks off and generally flouting the rules of both their institution and of the greater land. What those debaucherous tales, taken one after another in the 24/7 blur of news flashing past us daily, tell us about our infatuation is as pertinent as the fact that the CBI exists in the first place. (Or the NIT, or the NCAA Tournament, for that matter.)
They are a reward to the players that stick in there and play beyond expectations. Not everyone is a superstar. Not everyone gets their money handshakes and claws their way to the top of the heap and toward glamorous big-league futures. The vast majority of student-athletes toil away in relative anonymity, and those precious few opportunities to gain even the tiniest slivers of the national sports consciousness are something to be cherished. They are valuable experience and playing time to hone skills for a run the following season.
But they are also about more than just the people contesting the games. As much as we want to write this as a wonderful story for guys like E.J. Singler and Joevan Catron and the rest of the crew that stuck around after Ernie Kent’s firing after a disappointing finish in 2010, these tournaments and these bowl games are never really about the players.
If collegiate athletics were truly about the athletes — about molding young women and men to be better grounded physically, mentally and socially after matriculation — there would be no need for a postseason. The betterment through physical exertion would serve as its own reward. The reality is that these contests attract spectators, us ravenous fans that have shaped sports over the generations. And spectators bring money to the table, badly needed funds for both athletic departments bloating out of control and the greater academic communities of which they were once ostensibly just one facet rather than a wholly different enterprise unto themselves.
We love to dabble in the tabloid sensationalism of our greatest athletes. We as a society love to break down our heroes. And there have often been real gripes both recent and historic about egregious lack of institutional control within specific programs. But by and large this would be little more than some fictional soap opera were it not for the fact that games are getting played. Ultimately it is ALL about the contest, the battle between sides, the pitting of one competitor or team of competitors against the other side’s representative(s) and letting the crowd get their taste of bread and circuses — and the best part is that, as long as you put on the drama for them, the fans willingly fork over large sums of money for the live experience along with all the other trappings that go with it…
… and the best part is that we can’t get enough. What we want, more than anything, is the opportunity to get that headrush high of fanhood realized in real time one more time. Fans are just like junkies of any other substance, coming back time and time again to sate their craving for another lunatic fix. The last trip might have been the biggest bummer possible, but we always keep coming back for that next adrenaline hit of action.
And that plays right into the hands of the athlete, the coach, everyone whose very being is driven to the spirit of competition and the rote comfort of those gameday rhythms. We all want that one searing memory, one more dose before the season inevitably wraps itself up. Our incurable lust for another taste of the action is what allows even mediocre teams — and let’s face it, despite the CBI win Oregon was still just a 21-18 team this year — to taste postseason action and the potential for that last shining moment to punctuate a season with a high, sustained note of confidence into the offseason.
So cheer away, all you fans of the little guy who stumbles into his moment in the spotlight. (Even if the spotlight proves to be little more than a MagLite being pointed downward from the upper balcony.) Because in the end sports at any level are about providing that opportunity for a resolution of some sort. There’s no shame in getting that extra moment to celebrate, whether it is whichever Final Four participant ends up winning the big prize or the Ducks fans at Knight Arena getting their own moment to break in their new edifice in style. In the end it all comes down to what the fan wants, and the 9300+ fans that were in attendance proved that even the tiniest of tournaments still bring joy to the masses.
And what’s the matter with a little reward once in a while? So what if the NCAAs are bigger and badder and more prestigious? So what if the NIT has the longer history and gets the premium on the big bracket’s leftovers? Say it loud, say it proud, Ducks fans…