Like any college basketball fan, I love late March.
It’s when we see the end of the regular season, the drama of the conference tournaments and the last push for resume-boosting wins. All of this culminating in one hectic, stressful Sunday night, waiting to find out who will have the honor of competing in basketball’s greatest challenge – the NIT.
That’s right, the National Invitational Tournament. Two and a half thrilling weeks, 32 average to sub-par teams, dozens – perhaps hundreds – of somewhat-interested fans. And at the end, the strongest among these mediocre squads will hoist a trophy in the Big Apple. It simply doesn’t get better than this.
I’m kidding, of course. The NIT is decidedly not fun to watch. It’s a second-rate tournament, full of teams that weren’t good enough to get into the real one. Many of the players don’t want to be there. Schools that are invited will sometimes turn it down. Warren Buffett won’t give you a million dollars for a perfect NIT bracket. It is not March Madness; it’s more like March Melancholy.
In addition to the NIT, there have been several professional sports leagues that also fall into this category of lower-tier competition. In football, we’ve had many leagues other than the NFL. To name a few, there was the Xtreme Football League (XFL), the United States Football League (USFL), and, as of this year, we have the Alliance of American Football (AAF). Professional basketball is no different. In the 1960s and 70s, the NBA’s most famous competitor was the ABA (American Basketball Association).
Each one of these leagues was sort of doomed from the start. They didn’t have the infrastructure, history, fans or familiarity that a league like the NFL does. The existing leagues hold a lot of power, and the smaller outfits can rarely compete with that.
In this way, they are a lot like third-party presidential candidates. We see independent candidates try to compete in most election cycles, but we never see them win.
Think about Gary Johnson and Jill Stein. They announced their campaigns early on, and they made an effort to be in the conversation. We all knew they were running, yet, at the same time, we all knew they were destined to lose.
Since this is their inevitable fate, there are generally two types of reactions to third-party presidential bids. The first is anger, because we often say these candidates steal votes from the people that actually do have a chance. This reaction, while important, is really complicated, and perhaps a topic for another time.
The other reaction – which is a little more manageable – is indifference. Like Neyland Stadium’s dwindling student section in the third quarter, the American public looks at this un-winnable situation and walks out, full of either pity or disinterest. So many of us respond to third-party bids with a collective, “Who cares?”
Someone should care. I don’t mean that in a ‘Gary Johnson has a family and deserves your respect’ sort of way. I mean that there are bigger implications to look out for, even from losing candidates.
Back to sports. In 2001, the XFL was many things. It was big, abrasive and unapologetic, but it was not successful. It’s first season proved to be its last. It was never going to compete with real football.
It did, however, impact real football. Because it wasn’t bound by traditions or expectations, the league was more willing to try new things. They changed a lot about the presentation of football on TV. They made the skycam a mainstay in broadcasts, and they added player mics and in-game interviews with coaches to create a more engaging experience. While the league wasn’t successful, these innovations were, and the NFL began using them soon after.
The same can be said of the USFL, which gave us instant replay and coaches challenges. Even the AAF may have something to add to the game. Right now, they’re experimenting with reviewing penalties after plays. Someday, that might come to the NFL too, and I’m sure for people like Sean Payton it can’t come fast enough.
For basketball, the ABA was even more significant. While the NBA unfortunately didn’t end up using the ABA’s much cooler ball, they did take ideas that now seem fundamental to professional basketball as we know it. They adopted the slam dunk contest and the three-point line, both of which have unquestionably changed the NBA.
For presidential third-party hopefuls, this is huge. It means that you don’t necessarily have to win to make an impact. It means that your fight – though it may be a losing battle – can serve another purpose by bringing your opinions into the conversation. You can use the freedom of your platform to experiment with ideas that others would shy away from.
Coming back to the NIT, the tournament has some interesting new rules of its own. With a deeper three-point line, a new shot clock rule and a different take on team fouls, the NIT has a lot of potential to change the rest of college basketball soon.
That being said, you don’t necessarily have to watch the NIT to be a good basketball fan. You don’t need to make an NIT bracket pool or throw a party for the championship game. It’s still going to be dull, and it won’t be more popular than the NCAA Tournament.
However, as the presidential candidate field continues to open up, it’s worth thinking about what the humble NIT can do. An independent candidate – whether it’s Howard Schultz, Mark Cuban or perhaps Akon – will not win, but they will have their chance to make a difference.
So, keep an eye out for what these candidates are saying and doing, and don’t pretend like it doesn’t matter at all. Remember, if the NIT can change the world, anyone can.
Evan Newell is a senior studying Chemical Engineering. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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