ESPN, Vitale & the NCAA Blind Spot

Dick VitaleESPN’s hyperventilating, by-now-self-parodying college basketball analyst — offered a number of lucid points about how to improve the game in his weekend interview with the Wall Street Journal.

When it comes to ESPN’s role in the process, though, Vitale — who likes to joke he’s carved out a terrific career for himself despite a lack of athletic ability and being blind in one eye — exhibits a different kind of blindness.

Talk to anyone who follows college basketball, and they’ll lament the current state of things. Diminished quality of play. A “one-and-done” rule which encourages (forces, really) the best players to endure one year in college — with no interest in getting a degree or education — as a stopover en route to millions in the NBA. Billions from sports rights, yet no compensation to players, providing a strong incentive to cheat and break the arcane rules imposed (questionably, it turns out) by the NCAA’s enforcement arm. And so on.

Watch ESPN, though, and the attitude is almost invariably giddy. In alliteration-heavy Vitale-speak, those mercenaries putting on a uniform for a year are “PTPers” (primetime players) and “diaper dandies.” Every game is a nail-biting masterpiece. And by the way, every conference must have its own dedicated network, to go with the proliferation of channels devoted to the likes of the Lakers and Dodgers.

And the truth is, strictly from a business perspective, it’s all working. The system might have undercut the quality of the college game, but it has also ensured most games are close, and increased the likelihood of upsets. CBS and Turner Sports have also combined to make every game of the tourney available, providing a vast buffet in those early rounds. The Vegas action and interest in betting on the games remains insatiable.

This triumph of business over basketball is something ESPN — with its army of analysts — seldom discusses. They’re too caught up in the minutia of who’s going to land a No. 1 seed, the relative power rankings of the conferences (like the BCS football rankings, requiring plenty of higher math) and who might wind up on the bubble.

Most of the college basketball fans I know spend a lot of time grousing about the current system, sounding like middle-aged grouches by saying how much worse it is than the good old days.

But they keep watching. And as long as enough of them do, the NCAA, NBA, ESPN and every other member of the alphabet soup profiting from this flawed structure can continue to turn a blind eye to its failings.

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