Keith Strudler: More Davids Please
There is no story more universal in sports than David vs. Goliath. It is the foundation of entire bookshelves of sports movies, starting with, say, Hoosiers, and compels us to cheer for people we know nothing about, other than the fact that they’re not as good as the other people. At some events, like the US Open Tennis Tournament, the crowd nearly compels high seeded athletes to stay on the court with their top seeded opponents. It is simply an organic part of sports spectatorship. If your team isn’t in the game, root for the little guy.
Such is the nature of the NCAA tournament, where 68 Davids and Goliaths are neatly categorized by both team seeding – 1 to 16 – and team names. So we all understand that Austin Peay, a 16 seed, is a long shot against 1 seed Kansas. Same goes for 15 seeded Middle Tennessee State against Michigan State, a 2 seed. In fact, all four of the “one” seeds, as well as the twos, threes, and fours, are presumptive sharks in the tournament fishbowl, where every team but one gets eaten by the end.
Of course, then there Davids that don’t even get the chance to fight. In fact, the very nature of this multi-billion dollar American pastime is predicated on one very important criterion. That is, you have to get in. Such is the challenge for the over 350 Division I men’s basketball teams, all of whom hope to go dancing at the end of the season. The only way to assure that is by winning your conference championship, in all but one case determined by a conference championship tournament. So, the winner of the America East, and the Atlantic-10, and the Mountain West automatically get in. The remaining 36 teams are invited, picked by the strength of their regular season performance, or resume, as the experts like to say.
These at-large bids hail primarily, and heavily so, from the haves of the basketball world. In fact, a majority come from the termed Power Five conferences, those whose revenues are boosted by big-time college football. Others hail from traditional basketball power domains, like the Big East and the American Athletic Conference. Which leaves the so-called mid-majors, the Davids of the athletic world, with hardly room to maneuver.
Such is the case for a school like Monmouth, who won 27 games this year, including several over major power teams early in the season. Yet because they come from the netherworld of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, where they lost their conference tournament championship to Iona, so did they lose their spot to the big dance. Instead came Vanderbilt and Syracuse, and others with lesser records but stronger pedigree. It’s the uneasy balance of March Madness, where we love the underdogs, but maybe we just don't love them that way. They may be nice to have as friends, but in the end we all want to take North Carolina to the prom.
I'm not going to break down whether Monmouth or Michigan deserves a spot, since that is both tedious and beyond my pedestrian eye. But I will say this. We live in an athletic world where the deck is inherently stacked towards those with means. Schools with excess revenue can essentially buy their way into better performance, not to mention the fact that their schedules are inherently constructed to build a better CV. We know this, just as we know that kids from wealthy American neighborhoods are more likely to attend Ivy League schools then those who don't. As they say, it is what it is.
Yet the NCAA tournament gives us a unique opportunity to ever so slightly change that narrative. The tournament committee could easily create a scale that rewards those mid-majors ever so slightly more. It could penalize them less for inherently weaker schedules. It could consider the institutional challenges against the small guys. And without changing the essence of the tournament, which is fabulous by the way, they could allow perhaps one or two teams that lose the battle of inches, yet often start miles behind.
Do we need more mid-majors in the NCAA basketball tournament? From my vantage, yes. And I'm not just saying that because I work at Marist, a David if there ever was one. In fact, this is coming from a Florida Gator fan, which might as well have put the G in Goliath, even as they missed the big dance this year, and deservedly so. Give me more Butlers, more Valparaisos, and more South Dakota States. I'll take more Florida Gulf Coast and more Stony Brook. I want the American dream on full display, even if it's simply a mythical representation covering what we all know is an exploitation of young unpaid labor.
But I will save that for another commentary. For now, this year, let's simply hope that David has his day.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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