Root of the problem: New website, same old complaints

Something us Slate fans have noticed: The site's been teasing articles from The Root, another Washington Post-owned property that's aiming to be a "Slate for black readers."

Of course, this raises the question: Why can't Slate be a Slate for black readers? After all, the magazine's incisive political commentary and snarky cultural coverage should cut across racial lines.

But let's get that sensitive question out of the way--The Root's a noble venture, we acknowledge the benefits of hearing from diverse voices and focusing on different perspectives, blah blah--to focus on our real concern:

Why are black readers getting vintage Slate crappy sports writing?


Sure, Slate's "Sports Nut" column has grown progressively more interesting, with one writer describing how he convinced Mark Cuban to try "free throw defense," or this week's neat story on Belmont's near-upset of Duke. But when it launched, Slate's sports commentary was insipid and wrong (Bryan Curtis's hatchet-job on Cal Ripken's 2001 retirement comes to mind; so does Malcolm Gladwell's opinion in 2000 that the "toothless" luxury tax was going to allow the Portland Trailblazers and New York Knicks to dominate this decade).

Now appearing on The Root, Martin Johnson's piece--"I Don't Do Brackets, and Here's Why"--inherits this ignoble tradition.

Johnson, who describes himself as a "curmedgeonly" 47-year-old--and who covers the Knicks for the New York Sun--says his "hackles start to rise" when March Madness is praised as America's greatest sporting event. Sure, it's an exciting tournament, he acknowledges. But thanks to NBA early entries and a lack of fundamentals, Johnson grumps, the quality of NCAA play has declined and isn't coming back.

There's some truth to his complaints. Johnson bemoans how last month's Tennessee-Memphis clash--a much-hyped contest between teams ranked no.1 and no.2--was beset with spacing errors and poor free throw shooters. He notes that Kobe and Garnett's migration to the pros has inspired similar defections, depriving the NCAAs of dozens of elite players.

But mostly--like Joey Dorsey from the free throw line--Johnson misses the point.

Yes, the lack of basketball fundamentals is disturbing...but as a central bone of contention, the idea is ancient. For example, players supposedly abandoned boring mid-range shots and skyhooks to ape high-flying Julius "Dr. J" Erving--in the 1970s. Given that it's 2008, complaining that declining fundamentals hurt March Madness is like arguing that the D.H. is ruining the World Series.

If anything, the NCAA tournament highlights fundamentals, by giving ample TV time to less-athletic, veteran-laden teams like Belmont, Butler, and Davidson. The tourney also weeds out teams too-high on hops and too-short on basics; a Connecticut squad laden with future pros was upset by deliberate, defensive-minded San Diego on Friday.

Next, Johnson proclaims that "Crowning a champion is not just about having a good time; it's about rewarding excellence, and if you're lucky enshrining greatness." He then recalls the 1970s and 1980s, name-checking players like Magic Johnson and Hakeem Olajuwon--both of whom declared for the NBA early, we might add--who led their teams to NCAA finals, and invokes schools like UCLA and Indiana, which stockpiled talent on their way to record-breaking seasons.

Sure, there's less star power at the top of college basketball, but blaming this solely on the players is asinine. Traditionally dominant programs don't have as many scholarships--down from 15 to 13--which spreads talent throughout the country. Meanwhile, players are more inclined to pick from a range of schools--like Davidson and Gonzaga--as ESPN's army of networks televises practically every team over the year. And today's champions are still plenty compelling. Because they didn't become NBA stars, we remember Juan Dixon and Mateen Cleaves differently than Magic and Hakeem--but that doesn't diminish how shining their moments were at the time.

Plus, there were plenty of midgets among Johnson's beloved giants. The "survive and advance" N.C. State team of 25 years ago was hardly a team for the ages; ditto for the Villanova champs two years later. Conversely, the past three schools to win the tournament--Florida, North Carolina, and Connecticut--were seeded with future pros, well-coached, and extremely fun to watch as a result.


What Johnson ignores is that March Madness isn't a year-to-year product, which fans can compare like seasons of The Wire. It's a singular event that always delivers natural, incomparable drama.

It's 300 universities--representing communities coast to coast--first competing in league tournaments for a shot at the crown. It's quick cuts and simultaneous action taking viewers to the most compelling games in progress. It's the thrill of many players' fight to continue their careers. None of this is dependent on fundamentals, on star power, on subjective "greatness." As we've implied--and as other, better riters have said--the leveling-out of college basketball makes for an ever-more compelling tournament, if anything.

In fact, we're curious what Johnson would put forth as the "greatest" sporting event in America if not March Madness.
Look, we love curmudgeons; We Rite Goode is nearly as critical as the next guys. However, we can't stand grouches who make tired, skewed arguments. And especially not sportswriters who should grasp the chance to watch basketball beyond the Knicks!

But perhaps Johnson just had an off-day (other pieces are good reads). And The Root is pretty new, so it's likely not too-discriminating on submissions--the site's probably hungry for content.

So, Mr. Gates, we'd like to make you an offer...

Let us chip in with NCAA tournament coverage. Or NBA draft previews. Or meta- posts about blogs writing about newspapers that critique blogs. Really, anything to get in on the ground floor of Slate 2.0.

We'll even break our WRG policy on hiding our identities--and more on that this week--to reveal this much: We're not black. (As far as we know; we haven't used The Root's genealogy tool yet.) But we can challenge the conventional wisdom and recycle old stories. And definitely do grumpy.

Which appear to be the major criteria to write about sports for a Washington Post-backed website.

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posted by Crucifictorious @ 08:47,


At March 23, 2008 at 1:13 PM, Anonymous TheHype said...

Damn, I was about to start a 3000 word piece with this BRAND NEW "idea" about how Euro basketball is > than NBA because of better fundamentals... now I have to do "critical thinking" once again.. darn bugger..

So now that we know Fire Joe Morgan is an actor, The Big Lead is an actual journalist... methinks WRG is... a robot from the future???

At March 23, 2008 at 2:52 PM, Blogger JC said...

Yeah, the Washington Post pretty much blew that opportunity.

And count on Henry Louis Gates to say something ridiculous. He was a freakin' clown in his portions on ESPN's 'Black Magic.'

At March 23, 2008 at 6:22 PM, Blogger Crucifictorious said...

Howie, we were sent back in time to kill John Connor, destroy the human race, and prevent you from writing another romance novel about European-style basketball. Two out of three accomplished so far...

JC, The Root's been inconsistent but decently thought-provoking--we were talking about their "I hate Stuff White People Like" and Jeremiah Wright articles at lunch. Too early to totally write them off; Slate had its growing pains, too.

If anything, we're hoping that--since Gates will probably pass on our generous offer--you'd step in and show them how it's done. For serious. Just remember us when you're big-time*.

* Too late; we forgot that you already are.

At March 25, 2008 at 2:02 AM, Blogger Truth About It said...

First of all, thank you for calling "Martin" out. Second, no thank you for calling my attention to that drivel in the first place....

...actually, Johnson's terrible piece deserves a post from me as well.

Nice work Crucifictorious.

At April 18, 2011 at 2:19 PM, Anonymous Lisa Chester said...

"An indispensable thing never has much value." - Russian Proverb

At August 18, 2011 at 9:03 PM, Anonymous PharmaPlanet said...

First of all, thank you for calling "Martin" out. Second, no thank you for calling my attention to that drivel in the first place....


At August 28, 2011 at 2:39 PM, Anonymous TechPlanet said...

So now that we know Fire Joe Morgan is an actor, The Big Lead is an actual journalist... methinks WRG is... a robot from the future???

At September 28, 2011 at 1:41 PM, Anonymous Joe Silagra said...

Hat's of to all the team from Chicago who made the weekend so special for everyone involved. People from the Windy City are nice genuine Americans.

Yours truely



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