March Mawkishness NCAA tournament TV coverage mixes the obvious, the disingenuous and the irrelevant

March 27, 2000

Dick Vitale (whose name derives from the Italian vita, meaning
life, and le, meaning of quiet contemplation) says March Madness
is "the best three weeks, baby, of any sporting event!" He's
right: The NCAA men's basketball tournament is better than all
the other three-week sporting events that come to mind (that
list consisting entirely of international chess tournaments),
largely because it gives so much pleasure to TV viewers while
asking so little of its audience in the way of, say,
statistically measurable brain-wave activity.

Last Thursday, 20 minutes into the NCAA tournament, CBS aired a
commercial for a car-rental company in which one of the
company's autos, fully wrapped in brown paper, blindly
negotiates a winding forest road. That the ad carried one of
those "Professional Driver on a Closed Course" disclaimers,
warning us not to try this at home, goes a long way toward
answering the question: What kind of ding-a-lings does TV take
us for?

We're presumed to be the kind of ding-a-lings who need Vitale to
tell us, as he did on ESPN, "I've always said...when you lose
the national player of the year, that's a big, big loss." We're
the kind of nitwits who need an announcer to suggest, as Gus
Johnson did on CBS during the St. John's-Northern Arizona game,
that a team with a four-point deficit requires two possessions
to tie. And we're the kind of nincompoops who just might buy Bob
Knight's explanation--made on the Indiana equivalent of Afghani
state television, to a bobo in a red blazer--that while he never
choked any of his players, he may have shuffled an occasional
Hoosier around the practice court "by the back of the neck."

Knight also suggested in a televised press conference that some
sportswriters in attendance may have had extramarital relations
with sheep. (As of Monday, Knight had yet to apologize to those
he defamed, but then very few sheep have lawyers.)

If the General sounds juvenile, is it any wonder? Sports provide
escape, and television's coverage of them does more than take us
back to childhood. It takes us back to infancy, to the last time,
not counting commercial air travel, that grown-ups routinely
treated us like imbeciles. As it turns out, there's much to be
said for this. So I happily pampered myself--I very nearly
Pampered myself--and spent the first three days of the tournament
glued to an easy chair. At least I think it was glue. It may have
been strained peas.

For 72 hours I enjoyed the pleasing gurgle of baby talk. Utah
State coach Stew Morrill said (in response to the question,
"What do you have to do?"), "We gotta do what we do." ("Do the
Dew," a commercial then urged.) It would save time and cost
nothing in the way of insight if, in all future halftime
interviews, coaches simply emerged from the locker room and
quoted Sting: "De do do do/ De da da da/ Is all I want to say to
you."

I looked, with blind trust, on a grandfatherly man who explained
everything to me. "They gotta take the three here," Billy Packer
said of Florida, which was trailing Butler by three with just
over 10 seconds left in overtime. (The Gators took a two and
still won the game.)

I was kept up past midnight while Vitale shrieked like a fellow
diapered dandy in need of feeding. (His incessant shout-outs--"I
played tennis today against a great columnist, Hal McCoy...
great columnist, Hal McCoy, great columnist!"--seem a serious
sign of incipient Tourette's.)

I listened to Vitale's studio partner, former Notre Dame coach
Digger Phelps, rationalize his own first-round exit at the hands
of a much lower seed in the 1986 tournament: "We go up to
Minneapolis, play a team called Arkansas-Little Rock--forget about
it, we get knocked out, 'cause [when] you don't know who these
teams are, it's hard to prepare for 'em.'"

The assumption, as ever, is that the viewer was born yesterday.
Maybe that's why Vitale keeps calling me "baby."

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: DAN PICASSO
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)