It’s easy to lose sight of the degree to which sports are barely a thing. It’s guys running around. When enough people pay enough money to see some particular guys running around and this continues for a long enough time, the resulting “Guys Running Around” league develops an infrastructure and continues adding peripheral functions with a momentum out of all proportion with its basic mission: showing off some guys who are better at running around than most other guys.
Sure, there’s allegory involved in sports. There’s triumph and tragedy, teamwork and sacrifice, squandered potential and hard work, gritty determination and utterly destructive stupidity—all the sorts of things you can find anywhere there are humans. You can also see all of that stuff behind the counter at a Jamba Juice. Of course, the speed and dexterity with which Greg can make an Aloha Pineapple® Smoothie, will never be as visually impressive as some guy jumping 50 inches in the air to stuff a ball through a hoop.
I’m glad there are jumping guys throwing balls through hoops, and I’m glad that whenever I am in need of liquid refreshment I have a chance of purchasing the most efficiently-made smoothie in the entire world. I’m glad for all of it. I just always respond with a sense of wonder when something is itself, and not the theatrical version that supports millions of adjunct people through billions of adjunct dollars changing hands. Sports are guys running around.
I was struck by this the other night when I attended a men’s college basketball game last week between Maryland and Northwestern. Maryland is a gigantic state-funded university that announced two weeks ago that in 2014 it’ll be switching allegiances from the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Mid-Atlantic region’s traditional grouping of competing athletic programs which the school helped establish 59 years ago, to the Big Ten Conference, which is the same thing but older, more traditional, and for the Midwest.
Maryland made this completely nonsensical decision—looking at a map, you’ll notice Maryland is nowhere near the Midwest—as a result of a series of other nonsensical decisions. Long story short: Their athletic program ran out of money because it's stupid, and the Big Ten offered them money. The school’s hands were tied.
Is this not sports? It probably is.
The move was both cynical and realistic. In today’s artificial money-riddled landscape of American sports, nobody can afford to care about things like “the grand tradition of ACC basketball” anymore. And why should they? Hard-won through time though it may be, “tradition” is as much an unnecessary artifice as the Jabbering Morons Report Sponsored by Taco Bell Commercial Money on the We Do This For A Living Network. It’s sports. It’s guys running around. If you can get rich from it, you might as well try to, because we’re all going to die some day.
As a result of all of this money pressure, Maryland has almost no choice but to try their best to be a top college basketball team. It's in its second year with a new coach who’s been pulling out all the stops bringing in talented players. This year’s team contains the first successful recruiting class under coach Mark Turgeon’s regime, and it’s made the team more versatile and generally talented than in years past. The plan is to continue until Maryland is one of those perennially dominant teams you’re tired of hearing about, like Duke or Kentucky. Right now, Maryland is merely capable of beating one of those teams on a good night when luck breaks their way, and they’re good enough not to ever risk losing to goofball practice squad teams like Georgia Southern.
Northwestern, on the other hand, is a gigantic expensive private university. Its sports teams are almost never good unless they play sports that white people are good at, like soccer or women’s lacrosse. The Northwestern basketball team had little chance of beating a team like Maryland, which has taller, stronger, faster, and better players at every position, including the guys on the bench who never play and probably the equipment manager.
Last Tuesday's game was a part of the annual “Big Ten-ACC Challenge,” a two day series in which the basketball teams from each conference play each other. Usually, the powers that be try to present matchups between roughly equivalent squads, but this Maryland-Northwestern tilt was not such a matchup. Why did the money-grabbing geniuses in charge of the Big Ten-ACC challenge decide to pit these two teams against each other? My nearest guess is because both have contracts with Under Armour, a Maryland-based sports apparel company. And what company wouldn’t want a two-hour long commercial for $65 hoodies? This is the kind of thing we find ourselves subject to as a result of the self-perpetuating financial infrastructure the sport has grafted itself to, like a tree growing through a chain-link fence.
Even as Maryland fan, I arrived at this ridiculous matchup certain this game would be near unwatchable due to Maryland’s recruiting of talented, athletic players and Northwestern’s continued reliance on the sleepy “Princeton Offense.” Just as expected, the basketball played during the game was on the ugly side. But I realized, sitting among dutiful Northwestern fans, that I could have done a lot worse.
I sat in the section with the comfortable seats, full of old white people in purple sweatshirts, who walked to the game from their homes in the affluent surrounding community of Evanston, Illinois, and sat there in silence, occasionally emitting barely audible grunts as the Northwestern team muddled through the motions. At first their extremely low level of energy made me wonder if they knew they were at a basketball game rather than a timeshare seminar.
But it soon struck me that these people loyally go to every Northwestern game to see their team play a brand of basketball that is far less entertaining than going to the Southside and watching Jabari Parker, or staying home and watching the NBA. These people were here to see their outmatched squad of economics majors get shellacked in spite of all the nonsense about athletic conferences, brand sponsorship, boring offensive strategies and everything else that is attached to basketball but has absolutely nothing to do with the actual game. These people were here because they saw the sport for what it is, a bunch of guys running around.
More on Maryland's move to the Big Ten: