Saturday, April 01, 2006

Sport and narrative (sort of)

As I write this, it's less than two hours before the tip-off between George Mason(!!) and Florida, the first of the two semi-final games (LSU vs. UCLA is the other game) that will determine which two teams will play Monday for the championship of this year's NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. And I am perplexed about something.

From what I have read, CBS is worried that the ratings for these games will be lower than before because none of the teams is nationally prominent or was expected by many people to be in the Final Four. And while that's true, I am either too naïve or too dense to understand why such a thing would affect the ratings. Indeed, as Frank Deford argues here, the very myth of the tournament--that any team in it has a shot at winning it--is, with the presence of George Mason and not UConn, as close to coming true as has ever happened. It's like Hoosiers in real life--and in Indiana, too, no less. I figure, who wouldn't want to see this play out for real?

Mrs. Meridian doesn't, for one.

She and I talked about this this morning. Her take on the phenomenon that is George Mason is that the casual fan probably doesn't care so much. In real life, we attach our affections/animosities to teams. In narratives, though, what we care about isn't the fact that a team is an underdog but that the characters on that team show themselves to be worthy of winning and Big Bad State U. is revealed to be arrogant ne'er-do-wells.

I have to admit that I am a bit blind to this with regard to college basketball: though I have teams that I prefer over others, I'm ultimately a fan of the game itself. One clear way in which the game benefits is parity, and not just the tournament but this whole past season shows, I think, that parity is here: overall quality of play has improved, and scholarship rules changes a few years ago have distributed good players more evenly among schools. But when I think about the quality of my engagement with, say, golf, I am Mr. Casual Fan. No offense to anyone else on the PGA tour, but I want Tiger Woods to win. And I wish he'd drive more consistently so he'd win more, or at least not make the games too "interesting." I watch when he's playing and has a chance to win. Period.

Narratives, the ones that we remember and preserve, aren't about the norm but about deviations from it; yet in an odd paradox, even though we can pretty much write the scripts of those underdogs-triumph narratives, we flock to the multiplexes to see them anyway. And in the first weekend of the tournament, CBS trumpets those upsets. But Billy Packer's nationally-televised disquiet with, specifically, the inclusion of 4 Missouri Valley Conference teams and George Mason as an at-large selection (did its conference REALLY deserve to have 2 teams in the tourney??) should have been a clue to me that at least some still want to see, if not Big Bad State U., at least Same Old State U. Make that lots of Same Old State U's, and fewer Never Heard of 'Em Techs.

Perhaps the casual sports fan might not tune in to watch the (very real) possibility of George Mason's winning tonight because the actual contest is controlled by its own rules and is thus already existing in a state of unreality (or in a reality apart from our own). Within that space, we don't want to see intangibles determine the outcome; we expect to see "the better team" win, through skill or brawn or what have you . . . just as in our narratives, we want the underdog to triumph. Weird, that.

But: Go Pats!


R. Sherman said...

I think you're spot on here. One of the reasons the pundits, a la Packer, Vitale and so forth regret the appearance of the "George Masons" is that such schools invalidate a season's worth of punditry. Now, George Mason is sitting in the Final Four, proof that the pundits are idiots.

As for the rest of us fans of college basketball, (I could not care less about the NBA) we'll be rooting for the "George Mason's." We'd have no soul, otherwise.

I will now go make sure the beer is cold and nacho stuff is ready to go.


poco said...

I'm still for UCLA!