One recent afternoon, I found myself in front of the TV, its sound muted, watching an NCAA basketball championship semi-final between Michigan State and Duke. Ten young men ran back and forth, right-to-left, left-to-right, upon this court. It occurred to me that I had been watching this game for sixty years, and I did not feel that, oh, the last semi-infinity of this exposure had added to my stores of wisdom or emotional depth. Basket upon basket had been scored or defended, and civilization did not appear to have advanced one whit. The activity upon my screen, and my bothering to view it, seemed particularly pointless on this occasion. Perhaps that was Truth being presented like a flaming sword. Or maybe it was the not-quite quarter-square of the medicinally prescribed, blackberry-flavored, dark chocolate Kiva bar I had ingested a couple hours earlier speaking.
But there they were again. Ten young men, essentially unknown to me, so devoid of individuality as to require numbered chests and backs to be distinguished. Their actions were confined within a rectangle of rigid lines, which smaller, older men, armed with whistles, patrolled, keeping the young men’s impulses additionally controlled, even down to the adornment of their uniforms. And then there was this black-suited, rat-faced man I had seen in years past, returning like some recurring nightmare vision, crouching, prowling, pointing, snarling at the players, eyes narrowed, mouth twisted, every black hair in place.
Shivering, I sought alternative viewing. A few channels removed a World Wrestling Federation match beckoned from a portion of the galaxy I had not visited for decades.
A well-muscled, well-oiled fellow, with snaky locks to his shoulders, his waist girdled by a championship belt about the width and length of a well-nourished crocodile, awaited an opening bell. Across the ring stood a mountainous mass of beef, which, while more extensively tatted, resembled instead a specially bred, double-wide Dick Butkus, a Monster of the Midway so vast his crew cut appeared to require a power mower for shearing. If he walked down the street, tri-cyclists sporting red flags would have pedaled in his wake alerting pedestrians of the obstructing rig on the pavement ahead.
The smaller man seemed to be taunting this mass, who, porcine bulging, resonated the ability to comprehend, if not respond with, human speech. Then the smaller man hopped from the ring and, hurling taunts over his shoulder like assegai, began to exit the arena.
At this unexpected development, I clicked on sound. Appropriately aghast announcers reported that this fellow, the champion, had cancelled the bout, claiming, insultingly—toyingly—given the level of destruction these combatants usually faced, he had been rendered non-combatant by a head cold, as well as a sore foot. This foot seemed to particularly irk the big fellow, because its bruise had apparently been suffered as he was being kicking in the head by it a few nights earlier. “You can have your rematch,” I heard the small man say, smirking in Chesire-worthy breadth. “Just not now.”
The big fellow leapt from the ring. He caught his taunter before he could run. He pummeled him with many blows. He smacked him with a folding chair. He grabbed him from the floor and hurled him over the announcers’ table. He turned the announcer’s table over on him and the announcers. Two aides de camp of the champion tried to intervene, and the hulk threw them over the table. A little, bald guy ran up from somewhere, and the hulk grabbed him and threw him into the ring. The hulk climbed in after the bald guy, grabbed him again, and body slammed him to the mat. His displeasure still not discharged, the hulk spotted a camera man on the ring’s apron, plucked him over the ropes, and hoisted him into the air.
At this point a strikingly handsome, eminently fit, long-and-tousle tressed brunette in a tight, low-cut dress, whose subsequent conduct identified her—clothes clearly not making, in this case, the woman—the event’s promoter, appeared alongside the ring. She was irate. She ordered the hulk to put down the cameraman. “He’s a civilian,” she pointed out, no doubt concerned this limited his immunity to catastrophic acts, such as had befallen her other employees, not to mention the hit to be taken in the price of her workers’ compensation coverage. The hulk looked at her. Then he flung down the cameraman.
This enraged the woman even further. She ordered the hulk out of the ring. She ordered him out of the building! She told him he was suspended. Suspended!!
I imagined the hulk chasing her down, ripping the dress from her, and… Well, let’s leave my imagining there.
Roland Barthes, who was not called “The French Nat Fleischer” for nothing, has toasted pro-wrestling, I found when I later checked my book case, for its “spectacle of excess” “where the rules, the laws of the game, the referee’s censoring, and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder… which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell the wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators.” In that, I thought, it aligns itself with crucial moments in history, as well as significant movements in art.
That’s what the NCAA needs. Someone smacking Mike Krzyzewski over the head with a folding chair.