Tuesday, March 15, 2011

More thoughts on the politics of, and lack of transparency in, the NCAA selection process

It is no secret that I am not a big fan of the NCAA basketball committee—and that’s putting it mildly.

There was a time, however, where there were always a couple of guys on the committee who understood that the whole veil of secrecy that exists around the selection process was ludicrous. Jack Kvancz, the Athletic Director at George Washington, used to joke about it all the time. He even went so far as to formally propose that the committee allow a member of the media to sit in on the proceedings.

“No chance,” he told me later. “They laughed me out of the room.”

Jack should have been the committee chairman in 2003. He was passed over for Bob Bowlsby, the classic pretentious, phony administrative type the NCAA so loves to promote. Jack was simply too much of a straight shooter to be chairman. He might have actually been caught in a truth.

So, it is hardly a shock Jack got shouted down quickly when he even suggested opening up the process to the public—which is what putting a media rep in the room would do. You see, when you are on the basketball committee, you are doing work that MUST be secret. Murder trials are on television; every vote in Congress is recorded so the public can pass judgment on it but the NCAA basketball committee does everything in secret.

Oh please.

The worst part of it though is they keep trying to tell the public that they aren’t being secretive. Nowadays, the committee chairman does conference calls with the media leading up to Selection Sunday and that night after the brackets are announced. Of course he NEVER says anything. Sunday night, Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith, who is the current chairman, simply wouldn’t answer any questions. At one point he told the CBS guys during their softball-fest that one of the criteria for getting in to the tournament was ‘style of play.’

Tracee Hamilton, one of The Washington Post’s columnists walked into the office where I was working and said to me, “did he really say style of play?”

Yup, he did. Next thing you know we’re going to have judges at courtside. The East German judge’s vote will no doubt be thrown out.

For years, I have pounded on the committee to let a member of the media sit in on their meetings. Not me—honestly, I’d rather watch a 0-0 soccer game for 120 minutes on a continuous loop than spend four days with those guys—but someone; perhaps the president of the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association or someone designated by the USBWA if the president has another assignment that weekend.

There are two reasons I think this should happen: 1. The public has a right to know how the teams are selected and seeded and who votes for and against certain teams and 2. It would be better for the committee to PROVE to the public that all their claims that there aren’t any politics in the process are true. NO ONE believes it. My guess is the reason they won’t let a reporter in is because there are politics involved.

Several years ago, in response to the constant questioning of the system by me and by others, the NCAA—always willing to stonewall at any turn—came up with what it calls the ‘mock selection,’ process. Reporters were invited to participate in a mock selection of a field in February so we could ‘truly understand,’ how the teams are selected.

I’m pretty sure this was the brainstorm of Greg Shaheen, who was brought in to the NCAA by then-president Myles Brand to, among other things, improve the NCAA’s image. Shaheen’s a smart guy and, until last April, we communicated regularly—sometimes in a friendly way; sometimes exchanging arguments on issues. That changed when I called him out during The NCAA’s pat-itself-on-the-back Final Four press conference when he tried to claim that a 96-team tournament would somehow involved LESS missed class time for ‘student-athletes.’

Now, Shaheen doesn’t respond when I send him e-mails. I even sent him an e-mail asking when he was going to get over what had happened in Indianapolis last spring and he didn’t respond to THAT. Which is fine; he’s not the first and won’t be the last.

That said, the ‘mock bracket,’ was and is Shaheen’s baby. He did everything but beg me to participate, figuring if he could get me to but what he was selling he could probably get almost anyone to buy in. He and the committee have done a great job selling it to a lot my colleagues who love to go around telling people how they now ‘understand,’ the process. Oh please. You think because you sit in a room and look at RPI’s and take mock votes that you understand the process? Do you understand that Ron Wellman, the Wake Forest Athletic Director who is on the committee now, completely blew it by allowing only four ACC teams to be selected—one of them sent to Dayton? Do you understand that Steve Orsini, the SMU Athletic Director should be Conference-USA’s man-of-the-year for somehow convincing the committee to give UAB an at-large bid?

No, you don’t, because you buy into the notion that Wellman left the room when ACC teams were being voted on and Orsini did the same when Conference-USA teams were being voted on. Maybe so but how many hours during the day were they in the same room with the other members discussing teams? What did Wellman say when whomever had responsibility for scouting the ACC this year, said Virginia Tech wasn’t good enough? Or when someone suggested that Penn State—which lost to Virginia Tech—was a better pick than the Hokies because they beat Michigan State on Saturday while Virginia Tech was losing to Duke?

On Monday I sent a note to David Worlock, who is the NCAA’s basketball PR person. Worlock is a really good guy. He works very hard, is incredibly responsive to requests and questions and extremely patient—especially with people like me who he knows are not going to be receiving any good guy awards from the NCAA any day soon.

I asked Dave to ask Gene Smith two questions: Who voted for and against Virginia Tech and which committee member was assigned to the ACC this season? I knew the answer to both questions—none of your business—but I wanted that answer on the record. Dave patiently wrote back to say that and then added a lengthy—and I mean LENGTHY explanation of various criteria—which told me absolutely nothing. He then suggested—again, as Shaheen has done repeatedly the last few years—that I would understand the process better if I attended a mock bracket session.

I give Worlock credit for trying but it’s not going to happen. I told him if he and the committee really wanted me to understand the process, invite me to the real thing. (Again, I’d prefer someone else go, but at this point I’d have to go if invited since I’ve been running my mouth for so long about it. That said, I think I’m pretty safe making plans for selection weekend next year that do not include a trip to Indy.)

Here’s one other problem: the committee doesn’t have enough basketball people on it. With the exception of Stan Morrison—who goes off the committee after this season—there are no ex-coaches on the committee. Nothing but administrators, each a bit more sanctimonious than the rest. My favorite is Lynn Hickey, the AD at Texas-San Antonio. Last year during the USBWA’s annual Final Four meeting with the committee, when we had made a couple of requests to try to speed the postgame process after late night games, Hickey told us, “you know, everything we do is for the student-athletes.”

It took all my self control at that moment not to say, “PLEASE, I’M BEGGING YOU; SHUT-UP.” Student-athletes? Right. Meanwhile, they’re flying all over the country this week and next week and the week after that and the games are played later and later at night and, by the way, how much class do you think those kids from The Big East schools went to last week?

Any time you hear someone from the NCAA use the phrase, ‘student-athletes,’ check your wallet.

My friend and former student Seth Davis once referred to the great high school scout Tom Konchalski as, “the only honest man in the gym,” while walking into a summer basketball camp. The basketball committee could use Konchalski in the room. That way, there would be one honest man in there too.


Jonathan Ganz said...

I couldn't agree more with what you've written. Transparency is required (among other things like dumping the RPI for more modern and useful formulas) and makes complete and perfect sense. That's exactly why the NCAA will never allow it.

Eric said...

ESPN's coverage after the selection show was really good. This is coming from a Cleveland fan who vowed never to watch ESPN again after the ridiculous "decision" show (you remember "Lebron, do you still bite your fingernails?") Jay Bilas was great. It reminded me of why we all came to appreciate and love ESPN. Now, do you think their coverage would have been this good if they had the contract to cover the event? Would they have dared to criticize the comittee or just praised them for their underappreciated hard work? John, we need journalists like you to hold pepole acountable and I appreciate your refusal to participate in the mock selection. I am sure it would be much easier for you and get you more access (and I assume money from ESPN) to just play along. Thank you for not doing that.

Anonymous said...

Pepole, pepole who need pepole, are the luckiest pepole .....

Tim said...

I've always thought it was pretty funny that the guys going to Indy for the 'Mock Draft' buy into it so much...hell, there are times that people can buy my love with a great steak from St Elmo's, a 5 start hotel and a lot of cuddling...

Anonymous said...

Thank you for saying this; it sure
needed to be said. The sad part of
the fiasco is the treatment of
Coach Greenberg and the senior
players at Va. Tech. They have
been a class act. Can't say the
same for the committee.

Momus said...

I agree completely with John’s long-standing position that the NCAA is a pompous and arrogant organization with minimal interest in serving the “student-athlete.” Which makes it all just a little oddly disquieting for me to have to defend the NCAA basketball selection process.

Okay, “defense” is perhaps too strong a term, but I still find myself at least a little bit sympathetic towards the NCAA position.

Although John comingles the terms interchangeably, I think one can delineate between privacy and secrecy (“the whole veil of secrecy”) in terms of negotiations. The former is done behind closed doors, presumably to allow for a freer exchange of ideas before a decision is announced at a time widely known to the general public; the latter is done without anyone’s knowledge prior to an announcement being made (if made at all) of which the general public had no advance knowledge. The fact that the general public (or a least some faction thereof) may disagree with a decision made in private doesn’t in itself make the process wrong.

In that sense, John is making a specious argument when, in citing the need for greater transparency, he notes that “murder trials are on television.” That is true, and the right to a public hearing is an essential component in any advanced democratic society. However, the jury deliberates privately (not secretly) when it considers the charges against the accused, before announcing its decision (en masse). Would greater transparency somehow benefit the process? For my answer, just watch “Twelve Angry Men” the next time it’s on cable.

I use the jury analogy because that is essentially what the committee is charged with doing – deciding the fate of about 78 teams (to include the bubble teams). When a jury announces its decision in a high profile murder case, half the room will be happy, and the other half will be outraged (see, for example, Simpson, Orenthal James).

Similarly, when the selection committee (irrespective of the foibles of individual members) makes its announcement, there will always be unhappy people (to include all of the self-pronounced experts), based on school ties, conference loyalties or regional affinities. John decries that a semi-decent Virginia Tech squad was left out of the dance; I’m a west coast guy, and think that an okay-but-not-great St. Mary’s team (which was the WCC regular season champion and had a nice little run in the tourney last year) should have been included as well. (I think we both agree that UAB had no business being one of the 68.)

John seems to think that if you could just interrogate the individual members of the jury (committee), the process would be more transparent (and thus better). But what would you really accomplish? Despite the RPI and other statistical methods to assess college basketball programs, there are no real objective metrics that will clearly indicate the “deserving” teams, especially when it comes to those final few dreg teams (and lets be honest, that's what they are) under consideration. The reason the committee will not answer your question is that it can not, since the anwer would be "well, we had to pick someone." (If only John Blutarsky could have served as chairman....)

In that sense, the mock selection process, which my initial reaction to was complete disparagement, might not be such a bad idea. What would happen if you put John, and Seth Davis, Pat Forde, Luke Winn, Jim O’Connell, and Phil’s mom (why not?) into the same room, and stand back. (To liven things up for John, we’ll also throw Mitch Albom, Rick Reilly, and Norman Chad into the mix as well.) Sure, the level of discourse might be a little more informed than what you have in Indy, but at the end of the day, a few teams will always be on the outside looking in, and no amount of explanation or “transparency” will serve to appease their supporters.

The work of the committee is ultimately like making sausage or laws (to use another of John’s examples): some things are best left unseen.

Kyle said...

John - Here's what I don't understand. People complain about the NCAA Selection Committee's picks for who gets into the tournament, but how about their grasp of geography? Why are "West" regional games being played in Washington D.C. and Charlotte, Denver hosts games in the "Southeast" regional and Chicago has games for the "Southwest" regional. ??? I'm sure their reasoning is that it's what's best for the "student-athletes".

John from Indiana said...

I'm not so sure but what the "Law of Unintended Consequences" might quickly come into play as soon as we bring "transparency" to this process. Two facts of life about college basketball undoubtedly will come into play, one of which is part of the process already. First, no matter the number of teams, or the transparency of the process, SOMEONE will turn off the TV on Selection Sunday in an extreme state of "pistoffolous." Making the process transparent will NEVER, ever change that fact.

Secondly, the problem with making the whole thing transparent lies in the fact that, if you can buy your way into the heart of a seventeen year old kid, you don't think influence could be bought and sold in that selection room as well?

"OK, Conference USA commissioner and committee member, you want some high profile, big gate games from our schools, you better be willing to carry the torch for the sixth and seventh place teams in our conference, or we will seal you out of any significant non-conference action until you do." "OK Holy cross AD and committee member, you want the big payday of a non-conference game against Notre Dame? I know you are going to be the Patriot League rep. for the tournament committee, and I will be expecting some consideration if the Irish find themselves on the bubble." Loyalty and influence can be bought outside of that room, especially if the group dynamics are brought to light. As mentioned before, there is a reason juries are asked to deliberate behind closed doors. It seems like every aspect of college sports is for sale. Why add the selection process to the list? I'm no fan of the NCAA, but nobody needs the pressure or grief that comes with that job on the selection committee, and making it public will not lessen the lobbying and influence peddling that goes into it, it will only exacerbate it.

As my Dad used to say, "Be careful what you ask for, you might get it."