THE SPORTS DOCTOR- True madness: Dismal records no problem for NCAA

At least N.C. State doesn't need social promotion.

Having just finished watching season four of The Wire, I've been introduced to a concept called social promotion– the No Child Left Behind practice of promoting students to higher grades to keep them with their social peers, despite dismal grades or poor attendance. Apparently "being held back" damages a kid's self-esteem more than being illiterate– and is plenty expensive besides. Now where have I heard that before?

Aha! I remember: college athletics.

If there was ever a proponent of social promotion, it's the NCAA. From college recruitment to the Final Four, the NCAA doesn't hold anyone in Division I back, whether they deserve it or not.

With college basketball's regular season now a done deal, it's time to look toward conference tournaments. With 65 slots available for the Big Dance, plenty of at-large bids are hanging fire.

Surely, it makes sense for teams with the best records to fill those berths. After all, teams that play well an entire season should be rewarded, and nuts to everyone else. They should try harder next year. That's the American way, right?

One would think so, especially in a country where some people still see the "Red Menace" in every food bank and free clinic. But, surprisingly, the NCAA gets a free pass.

Handing out penicillin to people who can't get a job is tantamount to Marxism, but spoilers getting into March Madness is a horse of a different color. 

When it comes to sports inequity, NCAA conference tournaments edge out profit-sharing in Major League Baseball every time. While in both instances teams that can't pass muster reap undeserved rewards and upset competition's natural balance, even MLB doesn't have the gall to automatically give the Royals a World Series bid. But if there's one thing from which the NCAA doesn't suffer, it's lack of gall.    

What else but gall can explain how entire seasons are thrown out the window at tournament time? How else can a team with a 4-11 record play for a conference title? In every NCAA conference tournament, the best teams face off against schools with absolutely no right to be there. Whether it's the ACC, in which either #8 Virginia Tech or #9 Miami still gets a shot at UNC, or the Big Ten, in which either #8 Minnesota or #9 Northwestern has a final go at Michigan State, these conference playoffs are bogus to the extreme.

With so few NCAA berths available, no team ranked fourth or lower should be allowed to show itself at a conference tournament. Why should a team like UVA get an opportunity to usurp Davidson's place? Why should Creighton, which shares the Missouri Valley regular season title with Northern Illinois, cede an NCAA berth to a school like Florida State?

The shoulds don't matter. Regular seasons don't matter. When it comes to March Madness, only a week's worth of basketball matters, and it's all because of social promotion.

What (other than an overwhelming concern for the self-esteem of Division I schools) could be the reason teams with the most dismal records are allowed into conference tournaments? Why, other than keeping deep-pocket donors happy, would the NCAA bother with a D-I team with three wins? 

It's really beyond me, the justification for the NCAA's hubris– but then again, sports are of full of such conundrums. The slaughter rule, the fifth-year senior, the ineligible receiver, the sacrifice fly: they all reek of inequity and paternalism. 

So what if Clemson already proved itself a better team than Georgia Tech by beating the Jackets twice, and by a fairly wide margin both times? Is the third time somehow the charm? If Georgia Tech, with a conference record of 2-14, happens to defeat Clemson in the ACC conference tournament, will they suddenly be March Madness-worthy?

Yes they will. A Division I basketball team can play truant for the entire season, show up for the final exam, get a D-, and still walk away with a diploma. And it's the cornerstone of the No Team Left Behind social promotion program.