William F. Buckley was making a defiant statement when he described the National Review, the conservative magazine that he started in 1955, as an entity that "stands athwart history, yelling 'Stop.'" That quote is from the magazine's mission statement, which is a fascinating document in itself: puffy and orotund and then suddenly sarcastic and biting, here drawling along grandly in some lost Ivy League accent and then suddenly carping about The Liberals and all the things they detest in a way that wouldn't be out of place on the Wall Street Journal's editorial page right now. It is an attempt at something essential, but a doomed one.
This has nothing to do with Buckley and the National Review's politics, and everything to do with the way history moves. We can disagree on the direction, how good it is or where it's heading, but the movement is implacable: we don't get to stop history or even slow it, and it doesn't do much good to shout at it. It's telling, in reading Buckley's words, to realize that while history has kept moving right along, rolling over everything and everyone athwart it, Buckley's central rhetorical conceit feels so familiar. It's a sales pitch, of sorts: that now is a time in history like no other, dark and getting darker, and Something Must Be Done. This is a popular (and effective) polemical technique, and not just in politics. But it's only as good as its remedies.
There's nothing inherently partisan to being anxious about the state of things, or concerned about where things may be heading. Anyone, anywhere on any spectrum, could muster a decent reason to feel that sort of concern at any given time. It's on the question of solutions -- what to do, how to do it -- that people part ways. But it's easy enough to identify rot when you're presented with it, and there's something unifying in that. Any of us can look at the state of college sports circa now and see that a great many things are not working right. There is an egregious and patently idiotic refereeing scandal in the Pac-12; there's the decadent gold-plating and frantic misallocation of huge amounts of resources at high-level athletic programs that Patrick Hruby has been so thorough in obliterating here at Sports on Earth; there's the cynical and self-satirizing rise of NCAA President Mark Emmert, documented by USA TODAY Sports' Brent Schrotenboer and added to daily by Emmert himself, most recently in an alternately obtuse and defiant press conference on Thursday.
We can, all of us, look at all this -- even with the excitement of the Final Four gathering and rising on the near horizon -- and realize that it isn't working, won't work, and can't even not-work as well as it presently does for that much longer. We probably can't all agree on what is to be done about all this. We probably can agree, though, that there's no going back.
* * *
There's a temptation to assume that college sports were somehow more virtuous when they were smaller; or when we heard and saw and knew less about them; or at some time in the past, when people were better. They weren't, of course, not anymore than any human endeavor could ever have been more perfect than we humans have always been ourselves. Colleges were buying the services of football players before the implementation of the forward pass; referees were making bad calls for worse reasons before there were even eight teams in what's now the Pac-12; Richard Nixon wasn't the first shame-resistant operator to demonstrate the Rasputin-ian persistence that got Mark Emmert to where he is, or to govern with the self-serving cynicism that has made Emmert's tenure atop the NCAA what it is. Ed Rush, the former NBA referee who, before resigning Thursday night as coordinator of basketball officials in the Pac-12, reportedly bullied his charges into hanging questionable technical fouls on Arizona coach Sean Miller, is hardly a new or novel character in and of himself. This is and has ever been us, if not necessarily the best of us. These are things we have always done, if not necessarily the things we'll always do.
These tendencies to mess things up in petty, self-interested and self-defeating ways is why we create institutions like athletic conferences and the NCAA, and why we hire authority figures for positions like Pac-12 Coordinator of Basketball Officials or NCAA President. You already know the idea: Create rules that make sense, that militate against our worse tendencies, and then create institutions capable of giving force to those rules. Get the right people to enforce those rules, and you get a system that works more or less as well as any system populated by human beings can work. Create rules that have a primary effect and purpose to lock in a profitable status quo, and entrust the institutions to goonish bullies like Ed Rush and ambition-monsters like Emmert, and you get what we've got.
And that's a college sports world that just isn't working -- too top-heavy and too compromised; increasingly baroque and incoherent in its self-justifications and increasingly unable or unwilling to police itself effectively; too fundamentally unfair in too many ways; beset by institutions whose cultures have curdled and shrunk towards crass venality. The NCAA has never quite been an institution worthy of its own self-reverence, and whatever pretensions to civic worth were once attached to bigger athletic conferences or bowl games have pretty well withered at this point. But however cool and knowing it may be to say this sort of thing -- to have no illusions about institutions that deserve no faith -- there is also the fact that it's important to have institutions that we can trust, and that are accountable enough to hold others accountable, and behave accountably themselves.
Having that creates the conditions for everything else; its absence is crushing. College basketball is, as a game, as great or greater than it has ever been. The characters it gives us and the stories it tells us are dazzling entertainment, still. But those 40 minutes of truth -- as a wise man once said, ball don't lie -- are, increasingly, the only part of the experience that doesn't require a vast and queasy suspension of disbelief.
An institution that works can survive a bad hire like Ed Rush or Mark Emmert or Mike Rice, because that institution's strength is bigger than that individual's failings. Which, not to belabor it, is the entire purpose of institutions, to create a structure that mitigates against our human smallnesses to create an environment safe and fair and well-policed enough to allow for human greatness. Emmert, because he's smug and feckless and not good at his job, makes for a nice villain. Rush, because he abused his authority for petty reasons, does, too. So does Rice, who bullied people he knew wouldn't and couldn't fight back, and because he thought he'd get away with it. But all these bad guys and their bad acts exist within a bigger context, and reflect a greater failure. All were given power by their respective institutions, and all those institutions defended and abetted them -- in defiance of the values those institutions were created to protect and preserve -- out of a small and cynical deference to an increasingly untenable status quo.
It's reasonable, if not exactly laudable, that these institutions would fight the future so hard. In terms of the money they make and the power they have to ensure they continue to make it, they are the only ones for whom the crisis-prone present really works. But the present is just the present. All these self-shrinking institutions are making their stands against the forward movement of history -- this may be the bankruptcy and obliteration of the NCAA by Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit, or it might be something else -- but it's increasingly difficult to imagine this uneasy present projecting far into the future. They can't stop what's coming. Nothing ever does.