The Hunger for Madness

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VikramMuller

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I do not like the fact that I like March Madness.

I say this because in appreciating the yearly top-tier college basketball tournament, I am complicit in supporting a multitude of sacrilegious ideas sponsored by — and representative of — the NCAA.

The first, which I have already written about recently and will thus not delve into, is the one-and-done rule. As a tried and true NBA fan, I can’t support a system in which the best talent is essentially forced to go through the NCAA.

Second, the hush-hush money thing. Everybody knows what I’m referring to, but people don’t care to address it. Student-athletes who play in this gargantuan television event are considered “amateurs” and thus do not receive compensation that they would rightly demand were they professionals.

Schools, coaches and the NCAA, however, continue to bankroll every March — the NCAA will make nearly $800 million from TV alone during the course of the tournament, with that number set to increase in the near future — yet the players who everybody gets to know and love receive next to nothing.

Before I get to the final point, I’ll quickly point out that Shabazz Napier, the 2014 Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, spoke about how on multiple occasions during college, he went to bed “starving.” So the player who was at the forefront of tournament media coverage ─ and arguably NCAA revenue that year ─ struggled to get a meal under scholarship funding of the “amateurism” label. Hmm.

But aside from the moral argument, I think that what the monetization of March Madness does is ruin the principles of sports fandom. I genuinely believe that building a bracket and betting on it is arguably the worst thing for basketball, because the financial incentive takes the humanity out of sports.

Some may argue that fantasy sports does this too, and their argument is indeed valid, but considering how little effort filling out a bracket takes compared to constantly updating a fantasy roster, the level of personal investment is considerably less for the former.

This past week, in watching the first two rounds of the tournament, I have witnessed ridiculously many “fans” cheering for or against teams that they have never heard of before. I have met people who fill out a bracket without knowing a single thing about any of the players or teams involved or how they have played this season. And I have seen incredible looks of disappointment or joy on the faces of people who don’t even know what a five-second violation is.

This is how sports has manifested itself as a lottery, and the NCAA has done an admittedly brilliant job of making this tournament into a cultural phenomenon.

In principle, I have no qualms with betting on sports matches. But what does bother me is how March Madness has permeated through our society to be exactly as it sounds — madness. This is one of America’s unhealthy obsessions and arguably the most disgraceful, when one considers who ends up reaping the benefits.

Unfortunately for me, I am flawed like the rest of us. I too, fill out a bracket every year. And I also appreciate the emotional roller coaster narratives that unfold before our eyes each spring. As a writer and a person who appreciates the beauty of basketball as a sport, I may have a little bit more nuance in how I view the tournament, but that by no means exempts me from my participation in the madness and effectively, my support of the NCAA.

But realistically, unless everybody stops watching college basketball — good luck getting the fans who are actually die-hard for one school to stop — this pattern is not likely to change anytime soon.

In the meantime, hopefully this food for thought makes us reconsider our motives for filling out a bracket the next time around, while we simultaneously dwell in our March Sadness. Shout out to you, Virginia.

Vikram Muller writes the Tuesday column about current events in professional sports. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @v_muller26