What causes us — normally restrained, responsible people with jobs and families — to lose our minds, whoop and holler, jump up and down, pump our fists in the air, and shout “Yes!” as we high five each other?
It’s March Madness, of course, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament, which results in the national champion. If your team didn’t make it, you can find a favorite. For me, it’s usually an underdog — and with the bracket Kentucky had to claw through this year, they surely qualify as one.
In the surprising moments that make March Madness what it is, anything can happen. For a few hours, we forget about the heavy stuff: economic uncertainties, tragedy in Japan, turmoil in the Middle East, stress at work, problems at home, and we breathe in the moments that make March Madness what it is. In the words of Dick Vitale, “It’s unbelievable, baby!”
But wait a minute, before you stay up too late enjoying the Kentucky-UConn matchup this Saturday night. You might want to know there’s something amiss on the court, and it’s not a conspiracy by the referees to give the Big East representative an advantage over the Cats.
No, it’s more serious than even that, according to U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. The real March Madness is the fact that 10 of the 68 teams invited to the NCAA tournament this year did not meet the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics proposal that teams should be eligible for postseason play only if they are graduating at least half of their players. Although Duncan acknowledges that the NCAA has made progress in boosting the academic performance of Division I basketball teams, there is still much, much work to do.
And that’s not all: In the last five NCAA tournaments, 44 percent of the $409 million distributed to the teams with top performances went to teams not on track to graduate at least 50 percent of their players
But that’s not all. There’s more; it gets worse. Not only did 10 of the 68 teams fail to meet the Knight Commission’s proposals, but there also exists a growing disparity between the graduation rates of blacks and whites, with a national average of 91 percent of white players graduating compared with 59 percent of blacks. (The University of Kentucky graduated 31 percent of their black players, compared to 100 percent of their white teammates.)
March Madness gets more problematic. Richard Vedder and Matthew Denhart, in an article published by The Wall Street Journal, contend that this whole business of March Madness is just that, a business, specifically a business in which the athletes are being exploited by the coaches they play for and universities they represent. The athletes bring in much more revenue for the university’s athletic program and the bloated salaries of the coaches than the players receive in return. The authors suggest that the players should unionize, or something like that.
And silly me, all I wanted to do was enjoy a March Madness moment. After all, isn’t it the moment we wait for? It’s the team’s go-to-man charging down the court with only a few seconds left, the ball leaving his fingertips, the crowd cringing, the ball swishing through the net just as the buzzer signals game over. One team rejoices in victory; the other falls prostrate on the floor. Isn’t that it — the reason we watch, and isn’t that why we lose our minds over a game?
I believe it is. It’s Kentucky coach John Calipari flashing that proud papa smile at DeAndre Liggins as coach embraces player; it’s Virginia Commonwealth coach Shaka Smart leaving the court with the net around his neck; it’s Kansas star Markieff Morris crying as he walks slowly off the court. Yes, the moment.
The real March Madness is caught up in a series of moments the summation of which is a collective craziness that helps us keep our sanity for the real world we must face on Monday morning.
So, for a brief period of time this weekend, I’m going to enjoy the moment. I’m going to put the Knight Commission’s proposals on the backburner; I’m not going to think about the graduation ratio and the question of whether players should band together for a better deal than an opportunity for a college education and a chance to make a lot of money.
I’m going to enjoy the moment, and if I run yelling and screaming through the house as the Kentucky Wildcats score the winning basket, don’t accuse me of being out of my mind. It’s only March Madness.
David B. Whitlock, Ph.D., is Pastor of Lebanon Baptist Church in Lebanon, Ky. He also teaches on the adjunct faculty at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky. you can contact him at email@example.com