Why I Still Love College Basketball

The day after the NCAA tournament is always a sad day for me, and not just because after binge-watching basketball for a month, I feel wrung-out. It’s because in spite of everything I love this stupid sport, this annual event.

Photo: Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes I joke that the IOC and FIFA are the most corrupt institutions in the world. But I think the NCAA surely comes close. So many schools have been riddled with scandals of academic fraud, point-shaving, illegal recruiting, even drug dealing over the years with little consequence, that I don’t even know where to start. When you look at the Duke lacrosse rape case, the Penn State child sex scandal, Larry Nassar molesting gymnasts while at Michigan State, there is clearly a huge problem in college sports that reflects a lot of bigger social problems.

The FBI recently found fraud, bribery, and money laundering in dozens of major college basketball programs, and it does make you feel cynical about the whole sport, about March. Although it’s football that’s the big moneymaker in college sports. The Chronicle of Higher Education estimated that college sports is a $10-billion industry, but that money is mostly concentrated in the six big conferences that participate in the BCS. Even with “March Madness,” men’s basketball is a distant second. You have to combine men’s basketball with 34 more NCAA sports to equal college football revenue.

We want sports to be fair, but it’s so clear that they aren’t.

The truth is that most athletic departments don’t turn a profit. Most athletic programs have to get financial help from their university. The revenue made from college football often goes into building and maintaining expensive facilities with sky boxes for big donors and toward paying coaches exorbitant amounts of money to the point where the highest paid state employee in 39 states is a college football or basketball coach.

The players of football and basketball of the big programs are clearly making money for their schools, and to say that they are getting a free education in exchange is insulting. There are a lot of complications and potential problems with paying players — competitive salaries would becoming a sticking point in recruiting, smaller schools that don’t make money would be even less competitive, athletes may not then have incentive to go to class. And what about the cheerleaders and bands who help create the atmosphere, who travel along with the team to tournaments and bowl games? It isn’t absurd to think of all of these students as employees of their respective schools, and paying players may help curb illegal, external financial incentives.

The NCAA is a mess. I get it. I do.

Everything I love is tainted by capitalism, by exploitation. The trouble is that I love college basketball in spite of it all.

I grew up in Indiana. I went to a Big Ten school. I have spent more Thanksgivings alone and away from my family than I have Selection Sundays. March is my favorite time of the year.

If you like sports at all, you can’t deny that there’s appeal in a single-elimination tournament that starts with a field of 68 teams. It’s a tournament of match-ups. There’s magic in the fact that on any given day, any team could be victorious. The 2018 tournament proved that maybe more than any other tournament before it. UMBC made history. Loyola-Chicago had an unforgettable run. Marshall, Buffalo, and Syracuse in the Sweet Sixteen. Florida State and Kansas State in the Elite Eight.

Jordan Poole post buzzer-beater. Photo: Jamie Squire, Staff / Getty Images

There’s appeal in amateur athletes not playing for money. Maybe some players are trying to showcase themselves to the NBA, but most aren’t. Most of the participants in the NCAA tournament won’t play professional basketball, in the NBA or overseas. This isn’t their career. They play basketball because they want to.

The NCAA tournament has an element of humanity to it that you don’t necessarily see in professional sports. You don’t get NBA players who give up their scholarships to their younger brothers and drive for Uber to make ends meet. You don’t get 98-year-old nuns on the sidelines who pray with the team before every game. You don’t get a proud father from Puerto Rico who didn’t have electricity for four months after Hurricane Maria, but is there in the stands proudly waving a giant sign of his son’s face. You don’t get every single losing coach in their post-game interview saying in a quiet, hoarse voice that this was such a good group of kids and I’m proud of them.

Because they are kids. They are college students.

Players have four years of eligibility. Some programs rely on “one-and-dones,” others cultivate four-year players. But every single year, every team is different. Every season is like the end of a semester, saying goodbye to classmates and professors that you learned with and grew with for a few hours a week. Goodbyes are even harder when you had a good class, when you had a good team, because it was something special you’ll never get back.

Dynasties don’t exist in college basketball the way they do in professional sports. Sure, there are programs that are always competitive, coaches who routinely recruit the top players, who know how to win. But the team roster is always a revolving door. Freshman come in, seniors graduate, players go pro, players get injured. You don’t get another chance with the same team.

And so there’s something transient about college basketball the same way there’s something transient about college, about youth. There are more endings in college sports than there are in professional ones.

I think that’s why I hate it when TV cameras pan over players crying after tournament games. It’s not because there’s anything wrong with crying — there isn’t. It’s because I don’t think the players cry because they lost. I think they cry because a loss in the tournament is an ending. It’s the last time they get to play with those teammates and that coach on that stage. Even if most of the players come back the next year, it’s always different.

That’s the nature of college. It’s the nature of growing up. It’s the nature of life. There are brief segments of time when you have people in your life who came together by elements of happenstance, of chance, who mean a lot to you. It often happens in high school or college, but sometimes it’s at a particular job with a particular group of co-workers. But people always grow up and move on. They graduate, they change careers, they break themselves off into little family units, they’re busy all the time, they die, and things can never go back to the way they were.

We’re always searching for a feeling of belonging, especially in young adulthood. It says something about U.S. culture that as we grow up, there is so much emphasis and pressure placed on individual achievement, but when we’re released out into the world to do things on our own, the first thing we seek is a group, a place to fit, to belong.

The reason why I love the NCAA tournament so much isn’t because of brackets or “Cinderellas” or single-elimination or even basketball. It’s because this tournament is really about the fleeting nature of time. It’s about those poignant moments in your life when you realize that change is inevitable and necessary and hard, and you just want to cling to your childhood a little longer. It’s about final chapters and storybook endings. And only one out of 68 is a truly happy one.

2018 National Champions. Photo: SLAM

And that’s why the end of the tournament is always sad for me. It’s why “One Shining Moment” will forever put tears in my eyes. It’s not because the college basketball season is over and not back until November. It’s not because there’s anything pure about college sports. It’s because every tournament is different, unpredictable, bittersweet, and things will never go back to the way they were.

But that’s part of life. And if everything was always exactly the same, there wouldn’t be much point in living.

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