Bad as They Wanna Be

By Williamson, Thad | The Nation, August 10, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Bad as They Wanna Be

Williamson, Thad, The Nation


Growing up in an American college town gives one a better than average chance of being infected with progressive politics, a certain intellectual curiosity and a love for intercollegiate athletics. Growing up in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, makes one susceptible to catching a strong dose of all three.

Such is the case with this writer, who grew up believing that Dean Smith, the legendary coach of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels basketball team (who retired recently after thirty six years), embodied virtue and goodness as surely as Jesse Helms represented hate and ignorance. A passion for college basketball is the tie that binds in "The Triangle," where UNC, North Carolina State and Duke University all play. And if you live in this area, the team you root for inevitably becomes part of your identity. Duke is alternately denounced and adored as the South's answer to the Ivy League; UNC boasts of being the region's premier public university; North Carolina State, a school historically focused on agriculture and engineering, enjoys a large, in-state following as the populist alternative to its liberal arts neighbors.

For decades young Tar Heels fans grew up aware of Dean Smith's unapologetic liberalism: a much-celebrated (albeit modest) role in integrating Chapel Hill in the late fifties and early sixties, opposition to the Vietnam War, support of a nuclear freeze and opposition to the death penalty. Smith's political bent and reputation for treating players like extended family made it possible to imagine that by roofing for UNC, you somehow showed support for doing the right: thing.

No one held to that belief more than myself. From age 121 watched Michael Jordan and others from a court-side perch as an operator of UNC's old manual scoreboard. Now, a decade after leaving Chapel Hill, I remain a devoted follower of Atlantic Coast Conference basketball. Writing a triweekly, in-season column for InsideCarolina (, an independent magazine and Web site devoted to UNC sports, I fancy myself in the rare (but not entirely unknown) position of left-wing sportswriter. Like a Latin American soccer commentator, I strive to keep the game in perspective but: still feel elation when the Tar Heels win and supreme dejection when they lose in the Final Four.

For the thoughtful fan of college sports, however, it's getting harder to check your critical intelligence at the door and simply enjoy the game. The appeal of college athletics has long rested on their "amateur" status, the notion that the kids play mostly for the love of the game, without the pressures and influences that suffuse professional sports. These days, however, it's increasingly clear that big-time college athletics--in particular, men's basketball and football--are as wrapped in commercial values as the pros, and the system is rapidly spinning out of control.

In college arenas the best seats are now routinely reserved not for students and die-hard fans but for big-money boosters and private donors to the universities. The arenas themselves are being turned into prime advertising venues: Georgia Tech's revamped Alexander Memorial Coliseum, for example, goes so far as to place the McDonald's trademark "M" on the floor. Meanwhile, the NCAA's lucrative television contracts--an eight-year, $1.7 billion deal with CBS for broadcast rights to the Men's Division I basketball tournament and similar deals in football--are changing the fabric of the game, as top competition is slotted for prime-time viewing hours and games are steadily lengthened by TV timeouts.

Even the school I cover, North Carolina, which to this day bans all corporate advertising reside arenas, has largely succumbed to the trend. In the eighties UNC used some $34 million in private funds to build a 21,500-seat basketball arena, in the process setting a precedent of entitlement for major boosters.

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