Mixed Messages

At this point in the school year different classes I teach touch on a similar theme . . .

Why did the French Revolution happen to such a nice guy as Louis XVI?

Obviously answering this question involves many factors, but one clearly is the problem of the mixed message and the tension that creates.  Louis worked hard to reform much of France.  He spent less money, he spent less time at Versailles, he believed in the power of science to transform the country, etc. etc.  In his excellent Citizens, Simon Schama points out that Louis’ scientific passions helped undo his regime.  He uses the example of ballooning.  Louis invited many not in the nobility to come to Versailles to witness some of the first hot air balloon experiments.  Again, we see Louis the nice, modernizing king at work. But as Schama points out, ballooning meant

  • The presence of “commoners” at Versailles, previously the exclusive stomping grounds of the nobility
  • The mingling of commoners and nobility
  • The commoners traipsing over the hallowed Versailles grounds to follow the balloon, ignoring traditional boundaries in the immaculately kept gardens
  • Absorption in the “boundary-free” nature of flight itself (this last one might be a stretch, but perhaps he’s onto something).

A few years later when the Estates General wanted to “modernize” and merge the three estates into one “National Assembly” dominated not by the nobility, but by the “everybody else,” Louis protested.  “That’s not how we do things.  We should preserve the ancient and inviolable traditions of France.”  One problem Louis had, however, was that he had been subtly changing those inviolable traditions.  He could not ride the tiger of the changes he helped bring about, and it cost him (and France) dearly.

A less overt, but no less impacting tension of “mixed messages” got introduced into Rome’s Republic ca. 200 B.C.  One can’t help admire the stability and effectiveness of Rome’s government from the founding of the Republic ca. 508 B.C. through the 2nd Punic War.  They had new elections every year, with new people in new offices most every year, and they thrived.  Part of the reason for this lay in the conservative nature of its society.  A society of farmers values stability and cohesion.  You see this cohesion demonstrated in this brief clip of how they fought.  In Rome’s prime, no barbarian horde of individual warriors ever stood a chance against a disciplined Roman maniple.

Naturally such a well-run state would have success and expand.  This expansion, however, threatened the very social cohesion that made them great in the first place.  The governing structure of Republican Rome had no idea how to navigate the dramatic change from its agricultural rustic roots to its “Mediterranean Empire” status, and even if they did, the Republic was built largely to prevent change. Rome grew great by preserving its identity through preserving their traditions.  This tension between Rome’s success and Rome’s identity helped lead to a century of intermittent civil war and the eventual collapse of the Republic between 44 and 27 B.C.

I have always enjoyed college basketball, and the men’s “March Madness” tournament is usually my favorite sporting event of the year.  I did not pay as much attention this year, partially due to business, and partially because watching college basketball has become much more a chore than I remember.  The pace of the game gets mangled by constant fouling (the Kentucky v. West Virginia game averaged more than 1 foul per minute of play), and constant timeouts (in televised games coaches get five timeouts plus eight mandatory tv timeouts).  While one might expect that constant fouling would mean more easy points in the form of free throws, in fact scoring is down across the board, no doubt due in part to the fact that no offense can ever establish a rhythm with continual game stoppages.

If this were professional basketball the solution would be relatively easy in the form of rule changes to make the game more entertaining.  But there lies the rub for the NCAA, because their sports don’t exist, in theory at least, for entertainment. The players are “student-athletes.”  They play the game to learn (hence, a mountain of opportunities for coaches to pound whiteboards and teach during timeouts), not entertain.  Charles Pierce lays some of this out expertly in his recent Grantland column here.  Pierce writes,

What’s fascinating to me, though, is not how to fix the problem [of scoring]; it’s how the problem doubles as the perfect expression of the current state of the NCAA and the amateur model itself. Because neither of college basketball’s twin personalities came into being spontaneously. They both exist by design, and whether the outcomes of that design are deliberate or not, the principles underlying it are deeply bound up with the contradiction at the heart of the NCAA’s idea of itself.

Here’s what I mean by that. Men’s college basketball has to be entertaining, because the NCAA, which derives most of its annual revenue from the tournament, wants it to make a lot of money. But men’s college basketball can’t prioritize entertainment too openly, because then the commercial motive would be obvious and would threaten the NCAA’s supposed reason for being.3 “We refuse to admit that we are selling it,” as Bilas recently said. This is how it’s possible to devote a tournament engineered for maximum fun to a style of basketball that elevates pseudo-moral qualities like instruction, teamwork, and sacrifice over carnal indulgences like, I don’t know, jumping, or the ball occasionally going into the basket.

The tension between basketball as revenue stream and the student-athlete model have been stretched to the breaking point.  The NCAA will have to make a difficult choice, and have boxed themselves in.  They can choose between . . .

  • Basketball is primarily entertainment/revenue driven and so we make rule changes based on that principle, which sacrifices the student-athlete principle, or
  • Basketball is about being a student-athlete and not money, and so changes will only be made that enhance the “student” aspect of the athletes.  Time-outs will stay, and money will disappear.

I suppose a third option exists, one the NCAA will likely take.  They will make rule changes, but under the cloak of improving the student-athlete experience.  They may believe this story.  Whether they believe it or not, they will increase the volume of their mixed message much further that I would think possible.  The NCAA as we know will be living on borrowed time.

One can say many things about Kentucky’s John Calipari, but his message is perfectly clear.