What Cricket can learn from March Madness.

Lately there has been a significant uproar because the Cricket ODI World Cup organizers have decided, after two appalling opening results, that the Associates should no longer be part of the Cricket World Cup.  The reasons seem pressing and unquestionable: it is embarrassing for both sides when the differences in playing ability are so marked as to make the games feel pointless and laughable.  Kenya vs. New Zealand, in particular, is emblematic of this disease.  It is sad but true that the latter team, a full ICC Member, is eons superior to the former team, a qualified Associate, and this showed clearly on the cricket pitch.  Clearly, this day was a debacle for cricket everywhere and should never be repeated, right?

Wrong.   Consider the basic assumption that goes into the logic for excluding Associates from the ODI World Cup going forwards: that it is unseemly and demoralizing for the Associates in question for them to be so completely beaten on the international stage, and that it is, in effect, better for everyone if they are kept from such defeats.  Compare this to the reality of College Basketball’s March Madness, where teams clearly hailing from lesser funding, fewer scholarship players, and less competitive leagues go up against the titans of the sport: yes, the 16-seeds are routinely obliterated, yes 20- and 30-point margins, crushing victories without question, are common and a part of the equation.  But anyone who has ever seen the faces of the ‘minnows’ of college basketball – Canisius and Coppin State and Mississippi Valley State – as they enter the arena for that hopeless game, anyone who has watched them win their qualifying championship with the full awareness that they are little more than cannon fodder for the big boys, anyone who has watched them play and give everything on the court just to keep the margin low, and seen them lose with grace and even joy, that person knows how untrue the ICC’s assumption is.  The truth is that, even for minnows, even for the weakest team in the tournament, there is more respect given for being on the same field and playing on an even level with the greats, even if that means a crushing defeat, than there is in winning their lower division, year in and year out, never having the opportunity to really test their limits.  Even more importantly, consider the impact that a single, Cinderella-type upset has on the sport: when George Mason went on its run in 2006, the entire event became charged, tinged with magic; those whose teams had long fallen by the wayside found a common underdog to cheer for, and ratings went through the roof.

Moreover, at a time when cricket has much deeper problems in terms of finding its place in the sporting world at large, when the Olympics has just accepted the short, Twenty20 format as a trial sport and thus opened the floodgates to worldwide cricket participation, it stands to reason that limiting the participation of teams that have consistently shown their class in the shorter format is tantamount to cutting the older, one-day game off at the legs.  Top-flight, elite-level cricket is not harmed by the inclusion of some weaker teams – yes, New Zealand trounced Kenya, and others will likely do the same, but the same New Zealand team will also have to play Australia next, and Sri Lanka and Pakistan as well.  Excellent, Members-only cricket will also be played at this World Cup, have no fear of that.

More to the point, not all Associates have proven themselves incapable of playing with Members: It took England 49 overs and 294 runs to beat the Netherlands, in what stands out as perhaps the most gripping match of the Cup so far.  When that same Netherlands team did actually beat England at Lord’s two Twenty20 World Cups ago, it galvanized the world of Associates cricket, breathing new life into their play and opening up the real possibility of upward mobility in the cricket world.  More than that, the shocking upset drew eyes to the sport that would never have watched it otherwise, mine included.

And yet, now, the ICC in their wisdom have ordained that neither the morale of the Associates, nor the health of the ODI game, nor the potential excitement of fans worldwide, is more important than keeping the scorelines tight, and the social calendar for full Members even tighter.  This is elitism, make no mistake, and it runs the risk of seriously harming the game.  It should not be allowed to continue.

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Why the NCAA has Zero Infractions Credibility.

Given the latest revelations that Jim Calhoun has been punished to the horrific extent of being banned…for all of three conference games for his recruiting violations, I think it’s safe to say the NCAA is knee-deep in a series credibility crisis.

Not that it wasn’t before: consider the wildly inconsistent judgments in the cases of USC Football, Auburn Football/Cam Newton, where essentially identical infractions occurred: in the case of USC, the program very nearly got the death penalty.  In the case of Auburn, it was little more than a slap on the wrist.

Compare that again to the recent situation with UNC Football, admittedly not a title contender, and you see, again: there are massively varied differences in punishment, disproportionate to the crimes committed and certainly nowhere near on the level of Cam Newton’s.  The UNC players accepted a few minor benefits and spoke with agents, violating amateur clauses; well and good, they came clean and have paid their penalty.  Newton shopped himself around to the highest bidder, something that is clear despite and through every last denial he has ever made, he then tried to hush up and continues to deny the scandal, and he was crowned a national champion and Heisman candidate to boot.

As for basketball, look at Indiana, where the program was essentially derailed following Kelvin Sampson’s departure, and still hasn’t recovered since, and contrast that with John Calipari’s exceedingly checkered past, in which not one, but two teams have had to forfeit their most successful seasons ever following his knowing, willing, and serious infractions.  In Cal’s cases, he was exonerated with shocking and incredible (literally, not believable) rapidity, and has gone on to coach at Kentucky, where he has continued his streak in dubious recruiting and has gone on to have one recruit ruled ineligible already.  God knows what Cal’s connections at the NCAA are, but they are clearly very good; when Bob Knight calls you out for the charlatan and liar you are, it’s time to give up the game.

These are hardly the only cases of NCAA inconsistency, nor are any of them new revelations.  The simple fact remains that the NCAA committee has consistently shown itself to be small-minded, weak, and ineffectual, punishing above all those of whom it can make an example without putting its ratings in peril.  Even in the case of USC football and Reggie Bush, they waited until everyone, Pete Carroll included, was safely beyond reach for pulling the plug.  I’m not saying people should have been published, nor am I arguing with the rules per se, I just think it’s clear the NCAA is unwilling and unable to enforce them clearly and with fairness across the board, and as such, has zero credibility when it tries to take the high road.

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Why College Football needs a Playoff.

Every year, with about two games left in the college football regular season, the headlines go berserk with the inevitable unfairness of excluding this team or that, of prioritizing a 1-loss SEC team over a 0-loss WAC team, or frantically debating the merits of this 2-loss team over that.

The reason why is clear: a computer formula is possibly the most inhumane, unflinchingly reasonable method of calculating who theoretically deserves to be in the national championship game, but it shits on the proud tradition of Rudy, Angels in the Outfield, and Remember the Titans, just to name a few.  This is America, not Communist Russia, we say, and we want the right to crown our champion the way we crown our presidents: via popularity contest.

That having been said, the BCS was invented to create a hierarchy of achievement, not split hairs between demonstrably equally qualified teams.  The rigor and inflexibility with which we interpret it, combined with the fair-weather support of its own proponents (viz Florida’s emergence over Michigan in 2006 despite Michigan’s not playing any games between polls), does not do it credit, and makes it the unfortunate scapegoat of our repeatedly unsatisfactory attempts to correctly, fairly, and acceptably determine a collegiate national champion.  This would be the case for any sport, in any discipline, that chose a mere 2 contenders of 118 with such a limited degree of head-to-head competition.

Even our usual kingmakers (ESPN, SI, Sporting News, the whole lot of them), the same people who routinely and casually anoint a ‘next Michael Jordan’ every three years, fail us, doing their half-hearted best to predict a fickle sea change from one week to the next, shrugging their shoulders when they often fail, or standing mutely by in hopes some Bonaparte will rise to take the crown themselves.

There is a better way.

Before the various opponents of a college football playoff get all up on their high horse (Playoffs?!  Playoffs!!), let’s be clear: I don’t want to scrap the BCS.  I think it has an important function in providing context for a sport which cannot possibly, by its very nature, provide enough head-to-head competition to establish anything beyond a rudimentary ranking of teams.

Even in college basketball, with its 30-game schedule, pre-season tournaments, conference tournaments, and relatively smaller number of variables (it doesn’t snow or freeze on a basketball court, for one), the ultimate decision for championship seeding comes via a committee, and while that does not eliminate all controversy (there’s always a furor about ‘last one out’ etc. etc.), there is a slightly lessened pitch to the outrage of the 66th team regarding exclusion from a 65-team field than one sees in college football, from the 3rd-ranked team passed over for the national championship.

Again, rest easy: I don’t want a 64-team playoff in college football.  I don’t even want an 8-team playoff.  But I do want a playoff – a 4-team, seeded playoff.  With the seedings to be determined by the BCS systems as it exists.

How can this be bad for college football?  Critics of any concept of playoff often argue that the very concept would make the regular season irrelevant.  Not so, the difficulty of being ranked top-four at the end of the year is astronomical no matter what division you play in (talk to Boise State this year about their heartbreaking loss to Nevada), and the seeding is still an important carrot (consider that most BCS controversy involves BCS Rank 2 vs BCS Rank 3, not BCS Rank 1 vs BCS Rank 4).  If anything, the goal of making the playoff should serve to make the regular season more important.

Critics have argued that a full-blown playoff represents a slide towards professionalism.  This, to me is a variation of the above argument, the idea that the playoff will dominate all of football, that players will only show up for the playoff, or that students will not take their academic careers seriously as a result.

Look, again, to college basketball and the Final Four.  I understand the reticence to up the number of games students play, but honestly, if basketball can make a 3-week tournament work in March, in the middle of the school year, then I think college football could make a 2-week, 3-game playoff work in January, before the school year begins.  In fact, I think this would be ideal placement in all regards, to end the season with a bang while also raising awareness for the schools in question even as most college seniors come up on making their decisions on where to go.

Finally, there’s the question of how a playoff would impact ad revenue, and the idea that it would usurp the various other bowl games in question.  It is perhaps the strongest counter-argument to my proposal to date, but it doesn’t hold water.  The national title game as it is already rotates between the four major bowls (Sugar, Fiesta, Orange, and Rose); no doubt the national title game gets the most attention, but this doesn’t render the other BCS bowls irrelevant.  How hard would it be to imagine that, under the 4-team playoff, the semifinal games would go to two of these bowls, and the national title to the third, with the fourth being reserved under the present format for a BCS 5 vs. BCS 6 game, or equivalent under current bowl rules?  The constellation of who gets what could rotate every year, and the relatively speaking minor controversy of the number 5 team that did not make the playoff but deserved to should keep interest high in the remaining BCS bowls.

I know things are complicated slightly by the agreements between the various conferences and the BCS, but I have to think that, with a concerted effort, the aforementioned 4-team ‘Final Four’ playoff for the top 4 BCS finishers in college football would have every chance of success and the full support of the fans going forwards.  Good football is good football, and there is enough good in the current BCS system to where it doesn’t need to be scrapped, but raising the stakes for a final, short, playoff series can only help the sport, right?

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How Americans Don’t Get Soccer/Football.

Think this isn't grounds for an international incident? Think again.

Among the many things that may fall under the banner of ‘cultural differences’, the European love of soccer may be one of the most perennially perplexing of all phenomena to American observers.  It’s a very evenly, moderately-paced, generally speaking non-contact (in the same sense that basketball is non-contact) sport that for the most part results in very few scores, which makes it the near-polar opposite of the quintessentially American standbys, basketball and football.  Particularly since the NHL has changed its rules to encourage scoring and despite the emergence of a viable American professional soccer league, it seems difficult for most of my friends to understand how 90 uninterrupted scoreless minutes can be just as engaging, if not more, than 60 minutes of high-octane, close-focus, car commercial-punctuated action.

Well and good, write that down to upbringing and temperament, and maybe also to the fact that soccer aka football is very much a European lingua franca in the sense that, come time for national teams, there is no question of whether or not you’re a fan or not, you root your heart out anyway.

But there is something, additionally, that is missing in the American understanding of European national soccer teams, and it is probably due to geography: having only two contiguous neighbors, and having by and large dominated them in our major pastimes pretty much from the get-go, it seems that we are often at a loss to comprehend the impressively high stakes with which international soccer games are presented and perceived in Europe.  It’s just a game, after all – never mind that it is the main, unifying outlet of centuries of nationalism and rivalry that we with our paltry two hundred and nearly-thirty-five-year history as a nation cannot begin to comprehend.  Never mind that international soccer in Europe serves as a focal point and testing ground not only for the hopes and dreams of teams and their fans, but even as a debate between national ideologies (the Germans are famous for their methodical, rational passing approach, the English for their no-nonsense game punctuated by opportunistic set pieces, the Dutch for their ‘total football’ improvisation-on-the-fly mindset).  In other words, soccer is huge in Europe not only as the game of choice, but also as an expression of national identity and ambition, minus all that killing and war stuff.

Which is why it’s particularly irksome to have a national news service so thoroughly miss the mark on the most recent example of poor sportsmanship by a French national team (in case you had forgotten this, now you remember).  The same news service that applauded Michigan State’s March Madness Run as a ‘bailout in basketball shoes’ actually had the nerve to suggest that the Irish demand for a replay (while admittedly unlikely from the word go) was ‘akin to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder demanding that the NFL make the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins play again because of a disputed fumble in the end zone.’

No it isn’t.  American football is regional.  European soccer is national.  Sure the fan counts are often the same (or smaller, if you’re a small European country), but it is at once offensive and illogical to compare two major-market American football teams to the plucky David in its fight against the unabashedly arrogant Goliath (French fans justified the win as admittedly stolen, but ok because France ‘belongs’ in the World Cup, this despite their miserable showing in ’06 and even worse effort in Euro ’08, not to mention the debacle that was their 2010 group-stage exit at the bottom of their group).  I’m not saying there should be a rematch – I think that would actually be bad for FIFA and international soccer – but I do think this case in point is proof positive of America’s inability to understand or appreciate the true value and place of soccer in global society.  And no, just tuning in every four years for the World Cup isn’t going to change that any time soon.

(originally posted here).

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