Linda Robertson: March Madness offers respite from NCAA negativity

04/11/2013 12:01 AM

04/11/2013 12:11 AM

The Final Four is the lifeblood of the arrogant, overwhelmed, doctrinaire and Rube-Goldbergesque NCAA.

College basketball’s climactic final weekend is grossly commercial and exploitative. The NCAA is feasting on a $10 billion TV contract thanks to the popularity of March Madness.

And yet the NCAA Tournament manages, despite itself, to be a showcase of what is worthwhile about college sports.

The players matter, not NCAA president Mark Emmert. And, yes, 99 percent of the 10,000 basketball players in Division I and thousands more representing 1,000 colleges and universities at all levels are student-athletes, not one-and-done pre-professionals making a pit stop on campus.

Spike Albrecht, the pasty freshman who looked like he stepped from the local Y gym into the Georgia Dome, came off the bench to sink four three-pointers and score 17 points for Michigan in the wondrous championship game against Louisville. Coach John Beilein joked that taking a chance on Albrecht would either make him a genius or get him fired. “Because, I mean, look at me, you know?” Albrecht explained.

Luke Hancock wasn’t recruited much out of high school either, and he transferred to Louisville after coach Jim Larrañaga left him at George Mason to take the Miami job. But Hancock swished five three-pointers, scored 22 points in the 82-76 victory and became the first nonstarter named Most Outstanding Player since 1939.

Players such as Albrecht and Hancock renew your faith in the power of college sports. So do the Wichita State Shockers and the No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast “Dunk City” walk-ons who beat No. 2 seed Georgetown.

Louisville sisters Shoni and Jude Schimmel are American Indians who came Off the Rez (the title of a documentary about them) in eastern Oregon to help spur their team to upsets of Baylor and Tennessee before losing to Connecticut in the women’s title game Tuesday.

Contrast their riveting story to the defensive rambling of Emmert.

“I’m not sure what you mean when you talk about those cases causing a loss of confidence in enforcement,” Emmert replied to a question about the Miami and UCLA cases. “If you’re not getting sued today you’re not doing anything. If you’re going to launch a change agenda, you’ve got to be willing to deal with criticism.”

Emmert claims to be a reformer, but under his leadership the NCAA ham-handedly turned a case about rogue UM booster Nevin Shapiro into a case about rogue investigator Ameen Najjar.

Auburn might be due a visit. Before the Final Four, allegations surfaced that players were paid, grades were changed and positive marijuana tests were covered up.

Then there’s the Rutgers fiasco, another failure of leadership and nerve. At the same time we were celebrating coaches such as Larrañaga, Brad Stevens, Shaka Smart and Muffet McGraw, TV kept showing the lowlight reel of Mike Rice humiliating his players at practices. Thankfully, on Tuesday, we got to watch Geno Auriemma hug Breanna Stewart and Kelly Faris after winning his eighth national title at UConn, tying Pat Summitt’s record at Tennessee while calling her “the greatest women’s basketball coach who ever lived.”

College presidents enable a bully such as Rice and they readily pay unseemly amounts of money to CEO/coaches — John Calipari, Billy Donovan, Nick Saban, Mack Brown, Urban Meyer, just to name a few. Pitino earned a $425,000 bonus this week on top of his $5.7 million salary package — deserved, the school says, because men’s basketball produces $40 million in revenue. The buck stops lots of places — except in the wallets of players who get penalized for selling their jerseys or accepting a free tattoo.

It’s messed up. The NCAA is a tackling dummy for a system that has outgrown its sneakers and morphed into an entertainment industry so lucrative that no rulebook or enforcement staff can contain it. In fact, the NCAA is facing another lawsuit — an antitrust action originated by former UCLA player Ed O’Bannon to share profits on use of player likenesses — that would have an earthquake effect on the economic model of college sports.

The roll call of athletes declaring for the NBA Draft has begun: Ben McLemore, Russ Smith, Victor Oladipo. We will say goodbye to Trey Burke shortly.

But interspersed between the rants about money and corruptibility were the shining moments of the tournament. Tim Hardaway Jr. saluting deceased loved ones. Big man Mitch McGary talking about his unicycles and favorite chick flicks. Farewells to the Big East Conference. Rekindled memories of the Fab Five.

Caroline Doty, a fifth-year senior at Connecticut, and Julian Gamble, a sixth-year senior at Miami, pursued masters degrees and a desire to keep playing after overcoming severe injuries. Kevin Ware was in uniform and alongside the teammates who showed such compassion for him when he broke his leg against Duke and made No. 1 Louisville a sentimental favorite.

The 2013 tournament tied 1986 for “most upsetting” (when Louisville beat Duke for the title), calculated DePaul math professor Jeffrey Bergen in a New York Times blog.

We need the inspirational upsets and underdogs the tournament provides. We need the madcap feeling of March and early April. Otherwise, all that’s wrong about college sports and the NCAA provokes the wrong kind of madness.

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