At the exact moment Duke lost to Michigan State on Sunday, our sporting Borg collective went through the following thoughts, in this order and all within a second:
- “God, what a game!”
- “Hey, Duke lost!”
- “CBS must be pissed.”
- “Wait, no more Zion Williamson? Now I’m pissed!”
It is how an irksome and growing number of us do sports now. It is certainly how people who think that the feelings and billfolds of media executives matter, because you couldn’t swing a dead Gonzaga betting slip without hitting a tweet that mocked CBS for losing access to the Zion ATM. If you are a Texas Tech fan, a Michigan State fan, a Virginia fan or Charles Barkley, none of that matters to you. You’re getting all the vicarious fun you can eat, and good on you. But if you are hooked on stars or the sport’s bluest bloods and the usual narratives retold to no good effect, well, yes, you probably are pissed.
We say how much we like it when the big story gets ruined by the plucky upstart, but we lie. We hate when it happens because we follow the money, and our daily behavior shows it in any number of ways. We default at light speed from “Screw the network for not getting what it wants” to “God, now the championship game is going to suck.” This is an updated version of “The NBA is better when the Lakers (or Knicks) are good, or “College football is better when Notre Dame is good,” or “Baseball is better when the Red Sox and Cubs are good.” It’s wanting the big names to be in our faces while pretending to be repelled by them. It’s weirdly true with the Golden State Warriors right now, in which the body athletic acts like it takes joy in their failures (and especially hosings and ensuing tantrums like Friday’s in Minnesota) while still filling the arenas when they play and getting excellent ratings when they are televised, eyeballs when they are streamed and clicks when they are the topic of someone’s typing. They move the various needles no matter what anyone claims about America hating them or being tired of them. We are Schadenfreude Nation, pretending to revel in the randomness of a 1-seed, 2-seed, 3-seed, 5-seed Final Four while we watch in far greater numbers when it’s 1-1-1-12.
In short, we cannot hate Goliath without having Goliath in our faces, which means Goliath still pays off. Yay spasmodic hatred! Let a million middle fingers bloom in 10,000 taverns.
So why, then, has nobody within the various industries that have attached themselves around our sporting obsessions figured out that the way around this seeming disconnect to greater riches for all is to just go full Arnold Rothstein and fix the games? To have another programming crack or two at Zion-flavored Duke? To goose player movement (say, Anthony Davis) so that the Los Angeles LeBrons make the playoffs and advance toward a Western Conference armageddon with the Warriors and nascent Knick Kevin Durant? To wipe out all the angst about baseball’s inability to get out of its own way by forcefeeding Red Sox-Yankees upon us every weekend and then rigging the playoffs to get the winner to face the Cubs? To give the Toronto Maple Leafs a perpetual bye into the Stanley Cup finals, or put Tiger Woods on the leaderboard even if it means mulliganing every four-foot putt he has between now and death?
You wouldn’t sign up for that? Of course you would, and even if you suspected the results were being gamed, you’d do it anyway, baa-ing your way through the pasture with the social device of your choosing. Your ancestors put up with the Black Sox, and the college basketball betting scandals, and Tim Donaghy, and didn’t blink once. Hell, people still bet the games even as indictments rained down, and game-fixing would presumably reduce one’s desire to bet. And then there’s pro wrestling—I rest my case.
So all we’re really talking about here is whether the commissioners and media executives are willing to risk a bit of jail time (proxied, of course, by underlings) for greater profits. Frankly, if someone hasn’t brought up rampant game-fixing at some staff meeting somewhere, I would be disappointed at our level of cultural amorality. The biggest teams don’t HAVE to win the championship or even cover, but in a very real business sense, they should absolutely get there for everyone with a stake to get what they want.
Now maybe I’m wrong, and people are still capable of habit-changing outrage. Maybe if viewers had learned that Duke was illegally greased past Michigan State they wouldn’t watch the Final Four, or that they’d turn away if Adam Silver had forced the New Orleans Pelicans to send Davis to Los Angeles to force folks to stay up late to watch another coat of diamonds on LeBron James’s legacy. Frankly, based on what we know from all the viewing, watching, and attention-eating data, folks would be momentarily offended and would howl about cynicism and dishonesty in our most elemental pastimes and would call in to chat shows and watch other people chat on their behalf about the ruination of the country, but they still wouldn’t push away from the trough. We’d probably see a small army of touts who have figured out a system that factors in the fix and, for a middling amount of your money, would help you lose more money at a slightly slower rate, because capitalism is just autocorrected opportunism.
In other words, I think we as a nation are ready for a new Rothstein, or better yet, a lot of Rothsteins. If sports actually needs brand names as much as some people think it does, the time has come for a series of clever weasels to peel away from politics and corporate work and get down to a new golden age of felonious swindling, plea-bargained through clever lawyering down to misdemeanor hoodwinkery.
Indeed, the only real argument against this is one disturbing counterfact: The NBA, which is supposed to be the dominant sport of the future, has never been more popular or more lucrative than it is right now, with the Lakers and Knicks down the boghole and the most interesting teams in Oakland and Milwaukee and Toronto and Philadelphia and Denver and Houston and Indianapolis. No matter that James is in Los Angeles and Durant dreams of New York and Kawhi Leonard is always rumored to be a Clipper and Kyrie Irving plays ducks and drakes with New York and Boston for his own amusement. People who follow the NBA fixate on the marquee teams in some bizarre divine-right-of-kings fantasy world while the best players and the stuff they do is not in any of those cities. The players are the league now, and people do and will remember Cleveland LeBron far better than L.A. LeBron.
But we digress. We are steaming upon a stage of our social development where someone in a position of power/influence is going to say, “I’m just spitballing here, and sure it’s a felony, but what if we kind of, you know, greased the game result we want for the shareholders,” and the guy at the head of the table said, “Well, of course that would be wrong, but why don’t you work up a report on that anyway ... just for brainstorming purposes.”
You doubt this? Spend a week watching politics and tell me that it isn’t already a prominent feature, from exclusionary voting laws to gerrymandering to just not counting thousands of ballots, then tell me we wouldn’t rather shake our heads in disgust rather than rise up in righteous fury and overthrow the system. You may have your morals and ethics and belief in an ordered universe where fairness and honesty are paramount, and there may be many of you, but being the kid who says “Say it ain’t so, Joe” didn’t change the outcome any.
So that’s where we are … Zion Williamson doesn’t play one extra weekend, and Duke-hating fanatics across the country still end up missing him because scorn needs fuel. CBS didn’t get what it wanted, Duke certainly didn’t get what it wanted, the ACC absolutely didn’t get what it wanted (three teams in the Final Four), fans of the 14 lottery teams imagining Zion on their team didn’t get what they wanted, and the shoe companies and marketers and people hooked on star power didn’t get what they wanted, either. This is proof that getting what you want doesn’t often make you happy, and why result manipulation for the good of the business may be just the ticket for our misery-fueled economy. Come on, kids. This can work, and when it stops working, we can try honest competition again.
Ray Ratto is clearly a half-insane maniac who thinks Arnold Rothstein should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame and that the only way to truly save sports is to move all the teams back to their original cities so that the NBA Finals can be San Diego–Syracuse.