Dick Vitale (whose name derives from the Italian vita, meaning life, and le, meaning of quiet contemplation) says March Madness is "the best three weeks, baby, of any sporting event!" He's right: The NCAA men's basketball tournament is better than all the other three-week sporting events that come to mind (that list consisting entirely of international chess tournaments), largely because it gives so much pleasure to TV viewers while asking so little of its audience in the way of, say, statistically measurable brain-wave activity.
Last Thursday, 20 minutes into the NCAA tournament, CBS aired a commercial for a car-rental company in which one of the company's autos, fully wrapped in brown paper, blindly negotiates a winding forest road. That the ad carried one of those "Professional Driver on a Closed Course" disclaimers, warning us not to try this at home, goes a long way toward answering the question: What kind of ding-a-lings does TV take us for?
We're presumed to be the kind of ding-a-lings who need Vitale to tell us, as he did on ESPN, "I've always said...when you lose the national player of the year, that's a big, big loss." We're the kind of nitwits who need an announcer to suggest, as Gus Johnson did on CBS during the St. John's-Northern Arizona game, that a team with a four-point deficit requires two possessions to tie. And we're the kind of nincompoops who just might buy Bob Knight's explanation—made on the Indiana equivalent of Afghani state television, to a bobo in a red blazer—that while he never choked any of his players, he may have shuffled an occasional Hoosier around the practice court "by the back of the neck."
Knight also suggested in a televised press conference that some sportswriters in attendance may have had extramarital relations with sheep. (As of Monday, Knight had yet to apologize to those he defamed, but then very few sheep have lawyers.)
If the General sounds juvenile, is it any wonder? Sports provide escape, and television's coverage of them does more than take us back to childhood. It takes us back to infancy, to the last time, not counting commercial air travel, that grown-ups routinely treated us like imbeciles. As it turns out, there's much to be said for this. So I happily pampered myself—I very nearly Pampered myself—and spent the first three days of the tournament glued to an easy chair. At least I think it was glue. It may have been strained peas.
For 72 hours I enjoyed the pleasing gurgle of baby talk. Utah State coach Stew Morrill said (in response to the question, "What do you have to do?"), "We gotta do what we do." ("Do the Dew," a commercial then urged.) It would save time and cost nothing in the way of insight if, in all future halftime interviews, coaches simply emerged from the locker room and quoted Sting: "De do do do/De da da da/ Is all I want to say to you."
I looked, with blind trust, on a grandfatherly man who explained everything to me. "They gotta take the three here," Billy Packer said of Florida, which was trailing Butler by three with just over 10 seconds left in overtime. (The Gators took a two and still won the game.)
I was kept up past midnight while Vitale shrieked like a fellow diapered dandy in need of feeding. (His incessant shout-outs—"I played tennis today against a great columnist, Hal McCoy...great columnist, Hal McCoy, great columnist!"—seem a serious sign of incipient Tourette's.)
I listened to Vitale's studio partner, former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, rationalize his own first-round exit at the hands of a much lower seed in the 1986 tournament: "We go up to Minneapolis, play a team called Arkansas-Little Rock—forget about it, we get knocked out, 'cause [when] you don't know who these teams are, it's hard to prepare for 'em.' "
The assumption, as ever, is that the viewer was born yesterday. Maybe that's why Vitale keeps calling me "baby."