Carlson, Chad. Making March Madness: The Early Years of the NCAA, NIT, and College Basketball Championships, 1922-1951. Sport, Culture & Society Series. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2017. Pp xvi+475. Notes, index, images and appendices. $44.95 (cloth).
Reviewed by Andrew R.M. Smith
It takes me about an hour to suck the air out of a room. And I do it at least once every semester. The audience includes a lot of sport management majors, many of whom are student-athletes, at a predominantly business college. I spend a few minutes outlining definitions and historical examples of monopolization, give a quick review of anti-trust legislation in the United States, before sending them into groups to research some of their favorite sports leagues or events. By the time we circle back and present our findings, a noticeable pall has fallen over the class. Many of the things they love operate in a climate far less competitive than, say, the airline or telecomm industries that our Federal Trade Commission polices so diligently.
Of course, it takes significantly longer than a class period to explain how we got here. But with regard to college basketball, Chad Carlson’s new book saves us a lot of time. Encyclopedic in its detail but still packaged in lively, readable prose, “Making March Madness” retraces the trajectory of a postseason ritual that we acknowledge now determines a national champion every Spring.
Carlson crafts as linear a chronology as may be possible given the horizontal nature of the topic: multiple events in different locations at the same time of year. He closely follows the constellation of national tournaments in college basketball through depression and war; from the sport’s “boom” to its highly-publicized point-shaving busts.
The expansive cast of characters—including not just great players but many (in)famous coaches, promoters, and of course the gamblers—is impressive. Such a mélange of larger-than-life personalities is the stuff that Damon Runyon could have spun into a sports column, novella, and musical before the final buzzer at one of Ned Irish’s intersectional double-headers in the Garden.
Yet Carlson maintains a sober approach, even debunking a popular myth about Irish crawling through a window to see a sold out game and reaching an epiphany about college basketball’s marketing potential (32). The value of the book is not just in its level of detail—including final scores, point totals, and ticket sales that Carlson uncovered in archives around the country—but also in its honest and detached surveying of many fault lines underneath the surface of college basketball history.
Carlson’s previous work on the Red Cross charity games revealed the extraordinary and perhaps serendipitous circumstances that precipitated consolidation in college basketball’s postseason. Now Making March Madness unfurls the machinations behind the multifaceted conflicts, as well as their eventual resolution.
Regional diversity is as American as apple pie—right down to the variance in recipes and debate over the appropriateness of cheese.
Fittingly, Carlson grounds the competing visions for a national basketball tournament in those sectional conflicts. In short, it was easy to promote a few games as a “national tournament” but significantly more difficult to encompass the nation when selecting a fixed number of teams let alone convince fans around the country of its legitimacy.
The push-and-pull between an East Coast metropole in New York City and the general “western” periphery permeates Carlson’s narrative. Given its short history and lack of any creation mythology relating to basketball, however, everything up to and including the rules themselves could become battlegrounds. Without the sacred cows of traditional pastimes like baseball or football, stakeholders debated the right number of players, the best way to restart after a ball goes out of bounds, and how—or to what extent—dribbling should be permitted.
In that regard, a “Frontier Thesis” vis-à-vis college basketball emerged, suggesting that as the game migrated and settled in the West, it lost much of its edge. Ironically, James Naismith’s vision was much more of a game without any “edge” but as it percolated into the East Coast basketball became faster and tougher, even requiring cages to surround the playing surface so that over-exuberant players would not come into physical contact with spectators.
The different styles reflected their spaces in many ways: open fields versus crowded streets. The subtext of that, of course, involved the kinds of people occupying those spaces. Carlson does not shy away from the complicated racial climate of the early tournament era. He explains the important corollary to debates over rules, styles, and region that focused on race. New York’s role in staging and selling the postseason tournament not only codified some East Coast values in the final iteration of college basketball but guarded against a finite “color line” in college basketball that still existed in other professional and amateur entities.
While racism certainly pervaded the sport during regular and postseason play in many parts of the country the fact that Texas Western’s challenge to the institution came from starting five, rather than one, African American players demonstrates that the conflict between competing tournaments required some compromise.
In fact, Carlson goes beyond the black-white binary to provide a more nuanced discussion of how race played out in early college basketball. From the Japanese-American players in Utah (184-185) to a Chicano playing for New Mexico State (63-64), coaches, administrators, and promoters negotiated their own “tolerance” for pigment in their given contexts which could change drastically from the East Coast through the Heartland and into the West.
Ultimately the NCAA’s consolidation of a national tournament further integrated—regionally and racially—the college basketball postseason. But Carlson reminds us that it was not exactly a clean competition. No one, to our knowledge, played “One Shining Moment” in the background as the NCAA solidified the right to name the champion, and leveraged competitors like the NIT into second-tier status.
The chimera of “amateur” college athletics was often raised but Carlson contextualizes this saga in the increased privatization of sporting events (even those ostensibly held for “charity”) and the growth of sports media. Particularly in the transition from Roaring 20s through a long Great Depression, many believed they could get rich off of college athletes. In that sense, given the recent allegations of coaches and corporations banding together to influence college basketball recruiting, Making March Madness arrives on the shelf at a perfect time for general and academic audiences.
Those of us fortunate enough to teach courses on March Madness will appreciate Carlson’s masterful coverage of its origin story, and the foundation it provides for other readings on the evolution of the tournament such as Aram Goudsouzian’s King of the Court or Johnny Smith’s Sons of Westwood. But sport history and even business history courses could make use of a book that writes the unknown history of a very well-known topic. Although the density of the text may not be suitable for lower-level or underprepared college students, upper-level courses and graduate seminars will doubtless engender a lot of conversation if they choose to assign Making March Madness.
Andrew R.M. Smith is Assistant Professor of Sport Management and History at Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts. He selflessly serves the college by teaching courses on March Madness and Fantasy Sports, even though he is admittedly terrible at both.