Earlier this year, I attended a midseason Maryland basketball game as a not-so-proud alum. I sat behind a much prouder alum, a middle-aged man with his preteen son. Maryland didn't make the tournament this year because they're not very good at basketball, which was plainly obvious by this point in the season. This didn't deter the middle-aged man from spending a majority of the game calling athletes on both teams and the referees various epithets and things you generally don't scream in front of any child, much less your own. At one point, he threatened to poison the referee. (Exact words: "I will poison you.") This occurred before the Marcus Smart incident, where Smart pushed a similarly aggressive superfan for allegedly using a racial epithet.
In the wake of Smart's clash, Andrew Sharp at Grantland wrote a pointed and generally excellent piece about how college athletes are treated as professionals in almost every way except for the presence of a game check:
"Being treated like an object that idiots can scream at, or a talking point in a thousand different columns, or the centerpiece of debates on national television, or just a name for a scout to criticize -- all of it is kind of dehumanizing and unfair, and it's part of life for a superstar athlete at any level. It sucks for all of them. It just sucks a lot less for the guys who get paid millions to live with it."
It is for this reason that we often see college commentators generally err on the side of positivity, an implicit recognition that, if nothing else, these are teenagers and being a teenager is just one giant learning experience. So it comes as a bit of a culture shock to hear Doug Gottlieb, one of the many commentators employed for the early rounds of March Madness, consistently calling college players out for missed assignments and other routine mistakes. To name some exemplary instances from Saturday's games, he second-guessed players for passing instead of shooting and vice versa, with San Diego State guard Xavier Thames a frequent target. (Thames had a stellar game, scoring 30 points in SDSU's win.) Later, Gottlieb chastised Lawrence Alexander of North Dakota State for missing an assignment on an inbounds play. "What was Lawrence Alexander thinking?" Gottlieb wondered aloud. As the replay rolled, he mentioned Kory Brown as another guilty party.
It doesn't help that Gottlieb assigns guilt with a similar intonation that you might hear from a lonely man at a bar who wants nothing more than to impress others with his basketball acumen. This approach rubbed some observers the wrong way.
- Eric Freeman (@freemaneric) March 21, 2014
Is this Doug Gottlieb calling this? Because I do not like this.- Spencer Hall (@edsbs) March 21, 2014
Everything Doug Gottlieb says, a drunk frat dude on an airplane has said to an unamused flight attendant.- sir broosk (@celebrityhottub) March 21, 2014
Strong work all day from Doug Gottlieb on the Here's What This Nervous Teenager Should've Done front.- David Roth (@david_j_roth) March 21, 2014
To be fair, Gottlieb does offer keen analysis and play recognition rarely detailed by other commentators. He also compliments players more readily and substantially than most of his peers, offering pointed praise rather than recycling token kudos about hustle, drive, determination or effort. His directness would be welcome in the pros where athletes are paid handsomely in part to absorb justified criticism in the same stride as a linebacker's tackle. But Gottlieb's directness is misguided in the college realm.
For starters, many college athletes are still developing their games -- which, by the way, is the entire point of forgoing a professional salary to remain in college -- so expecting them to perform as well as established athletes isn't quite fair. "I don't criticize [college athletes]," Charles Barkley, analyst for both the NCAA tournament and the NBA playoffs, told me before the tournament began. "The guy in the pros has been playing a lot longer than a college kid, so I'm not gonna criticize him for making as many mistakes." This is apparently a very different viewpoint than Gottlieb's, who routinely states what a player ought to have done on a previous possession, or wonder aloud what a certain player was thinking, and often mentions players by name for missed assignments.
Developmental considerations aside, it seems unwise for broadcasters to blame certain players for dozens of failed possessions throughout a game. The ever-present spectre of the Superfan to harass a player Gottlieb has identified as at fault seems both vindictive and against the tournament's stated (if largely disingenuous) spirit. We shouldn't be adding fuel to the tire fire.
Beyond that, Gottlieb's stream of criticism is indicative of a national confusion over college athletes' standing: commodified, publicized and abused as professionals but compensated like amateurs. The only difference between Gottlieb and any number of writers, bloggers, analysts and superfans is that Gottlieb has a larger and more prominent platform for his criticism, exposing him to backlash others don't receive. In a way, criticizing athletes is a natural reaction to taking any sport seriously, which is exactly what the NCAA wants us to do. Nobody buys unnamed jerseys, college-branded Snuggies or thousands of dollars' worth of courtside season tickets if nobody cares.
This isn't to say Gottlieb is similar to or responsible for the presence of Superfans. But they're both products of the same unjust amateur tag, one that wants to commodify players while simultaneously restricting them to the confines of amateurism. When you have people spending their entire lives hyper-analyzing these teams only to be showcased for a few months a year, or you're a 52-year-old man who spends his own money to travel with a college basketball team, when the camera shifts from the athletes to you, the temptation to do more than watch might be too much to bear.