There is something to be said for college students’ uninhibited ingenuity. A primary purpose of higher education, after all, is to stimulate the innovative gene, and college hijinks have a certain place of honor at sporting events, few of which can match the passionate, occasionally goofy scene at big-time basketball games.
But I’m not sure I’m impressed with the Arizona State students’ Curtain of Distraction. Its fevered, bizarre mini-productions—staged for the express purpose of impairing the free-throw proficiency of opposing teams—somehow has brought overwhelmingly positive publicity for its buffonish inspiration.
The perpetrators—essentially a small band of students but fully backed by the university, including associate athletic director Bill Kennedy—are proud of having devised an efficient “free-throw defense” behind the opponents’ basket, and the NCAA itself—that bastion of fair play—has given its blessing.
The NCAA.com Web site has posted a glowing video about the creation and operation of the curtain, and further approved the device’s continued use in the women’s championship tournament for Arizona State’s first-round home games. That, in spite of a New York Times analysis that cited a one- to two-point advantage per game for Arizona State resulting from the curtain’s deployment.
In case you don’t know: With the Curtain of Distraction, Arizona State pranksters, stepping away from the role of spectating just as an opposing player readies to take a free throw, whip open a black curtain behind the basket to reveal some weird, frenzied skit. A student rowing a blow-up kayak. A mostly naked fellow playing a guitar. An Elvis impersonator. A fat guy in an undershirt and tutu. A clown jumping rope.
The choreographed lunacy has been called “brilliant” and “the funniest weapon” against free-throw efficiency. The intent itself hardly is new. In the 1950s, when guide wires stabilized baskets at NBA games, there were tales of Syracuse Nationals fans grasping those wires and shaking the backboard during opponents’ tries.
Still, compared to the typical modern tricks, of fans waving their arms behind the basket or holding up silly posters—also not exactly respectful—the Curtain of Distraction is fan disruption on steroids. It is a show-stealing invasion of the athletic competition. And at what point is that tantamount to poor sportsmanship?
Ka’Nesheia Cobbins, a senior guard for the Arkansas-Little Rock team, preparing to face Arizona State’s women in the second round of NCAA play, was aware that “every time they open [the curtain], it’s a different character, and we’re, like, ‘How did they do that?’ The commentators were saying that they think that’s something good. It’s cool, I guess, but we’re just going to have to block it out….”
Why is it something good?
The man who wrote the Times piece on the Curtain of Distraction’s effect, University of Michigan economics professor and public policy scholar Justin Wolfers, is the same fellow who applied “forensic economics” to a 2007 study concluding there was point shaving in roughly one percent of Division I basketball games. Wolfers drew no conclusions that the Curtain of Distraction is a different form of cheating. But I will.
Isn’t the Curtain of Distraction also gaming the system? Shouldn’t players be players, officials be officials, coaches be coaches and fans just be fans? Arizona State has a drama department for the Curtain’s aspiring thespians, where there is no danger of visiting basketball players showing up and trying to mess with their focus.