25 February 2008

Sports shorts

Much of the news in the state over the weekend was dominated by two big sports stories.

At the top of the page was the second basketball coaching change in three years at the Alma Mater. Kelvin Sampson accepted a buyout of his contract after a recurring scandal involving overflowing phone calls to recruits was finally blown open by the NCAA two weeks ago.

I'm not so much conflicted about the decision here (I think the university probably did the right thing here) but by the reaction. On the one hand I'm silently gleeful that the win-or-die zealots who so eagerly ran Mike Davis out of town now face an even more sobering future. Sure, you have what is probably the best Indiana team since the early '90s, but the time is coming to pay the piper. On the other hand, many of those people were never fully satisfied with the decision to hire Sampson in the first place, distantly insisting he wasn't white enough sufficiently tied to the mythos of "Indiana basketball." Now they'll have another chance to fulfill their nativist fantasy and drive the program into further irrelevance.

After twelve years of acrimonious division, the nation's two major formula-car racing series struck a reunification deal last week in Indianapolis. Most of the bitter ideological duels that marked the early days of the divide during the early years had been moot for some time, and so the settlement was big news for the fifteen of us left who still care at all.

Were "The Split"--as it's colloquially known--to occur today, I probably would have been on the opposite side as the one I actually took for most of the past decade or so. When Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Tony George created the fractional Indy Racing League back in 1996, it was seen by many of its early boosters as a chance to purge what they saw as the decaying effects of international road racing on the sport and re-fertilize it with American oval racers, simultaneously returning the Indianapolis 500 to its halcyon years of the '50s and '60s when it was the exclusive province of Americans. Supporters of the established CART series saw it is a naked power grab by George, who threatened to fracture the sport in an attempt to get more decision-making power for himself.

It looks like the latter group may have been closer to the truth. George has undoubtedly won the long battle, but the resulting product looks little like what many of his early boosters imagined it might (much to my delight, I should add). After years of struggling to gain traction with his series of mostly lower-budget, ragtag operations, George began to woo many of his former enemies from across the fence, and, with their sponsors feeling the pinch of being shut out of the sport's premier event, most of the top open-wheel teams and manufacturers filtered over to the IRL during the first half of this decade. Indeed, the mass defections effectively destroyed the old entity of CART, which declared bankruptcy in 2004 and was replaced with a successor state known as CCWS.

The final product of a merger will look a lot like the one from before the war, with a nearly-even split between ovals and road races, but a good deal less apparent to most of the country. In 1996, the split was front-of-the-sports-page news in much of the country; the reunification was lucky to see P6. There is some hope that eliminating popular confusion between two virtually-identical series will re-energize some public interest, but the new series starts life with few familiar faces, two of which were recently poached by NASCAR in attempt to boost its own sagging fortunes with an uncharacteristic nod toward meager cosmopolitanism. Thank the Deity for "Dancing with the Stars," I suppose.