It’s my spring break, and I usually spend this week fretting about the work I should be catching up on—the writing, the grading, the exercising, the bill-paying—but this year I’ve decided to just do the grading without fussing about it, put the writing on the shelf until next week, call riding my bike to the bar “exercise,” and just charge it. It’s been great. And then Thursday hit, and that means college basketball extravaganza—March Madness.
Now, I’m not actually a fan of college sports. I think college is about educating students, getting them out the door in four years with a degree that’s prepared them to think critically, to understand that the world as it is isn’t the world that has to be, and that we are in the messes we are in because of decisions people make, so we could totally make different ones. And yes, I hope they’ve got the basic skills to get a job that they might make rewarding for themselves. We’re all living under capitalism, which is great for innovating shit like washing machines and mass production to free up our time, but it also narrows what it means to be free. As that old guy Karl Marx pointed out, capitalist freedom means that we are free to sell our labor on the open market, but we’re also free of any other choice. A bummer definition if I ever read one, but a pretty right-on one. So yes, go to college to learn to think of other ways to get free, but also prepare yourself for the freedom we’ve got now.
High-stakes college basketball isn’t part of that mission, at least not in my view. It’s not that sports don’t teach valuable lessons—teamwork, perseverance, dedication—but they aren’t obviously part of the educational mission of the university. And they aren’t about distributing scholarships to students who otherwise might not be able to afford college. I mean, does it really make sense to put college out of reach for kids without means, unless they can play basketball (or score really high on a standardized test or agree to join the military)? If we wanted to financially support students, we could just do that—education could be a publicly supported public good. College can’t—or shouldn’t, in my view—become a front for athletics that make money for everybody but the players themselves. The recent scandals at such big-money programs as UNC-Chapel Hill and Syracuse demonstrate that the goal is not always to get these student-athletes through college with a solid education, but to do whatever it takes to keep them eligible to stay on the court.
And when we take into account that so many college athletes are African-American, who have their labor controlled by the NCAA, are not allowed the basic “freedom” under capitalism to sell their labor on the open market to the highest bidder, are not allowed to work or earn beyond the limits imposed by their primary employer? Well, it starts to look a whole lot like Jim Crow, and the whole “student-athlete” mythology gets pretty ugly.
I know all this, but still. I love the college basketball tournament. I have loved it for as long as I can remember, bonding with my big brother over a shared visceral hate for both UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke, a distaste for the milk-fed farm boys of Kansas and Kentucky, but how he can love USC so much when UCLA is right down the road (public school over private every time, I thought—where’s his class solidarity?!?!). I remember swooning over Mizzou’s coach for years, what with his piercing blue eyes and strudel-like blond waves atop his head. I hate Cincinnati, because they’re the rivals of the University of Memphis, where my brother earned his Ph.D. Go Orange—my sister got her library degree by mail from there—and go Cal, not really because I’m an alum, but mostly because Uncle Kevin went there when Jason Kidd played on the team. My baby sister went to Gonzaga, so Go Zags, and besides, they’re a Jesuit school, and my parents both went to Seattle University, another Jesuit school, and that one played the 1958 championship game with an integrated team in front of an all-white crowd, so GO JESUIT SCHOOLS in general and down with Notre Dame, for reasons I can’t quite explain. And then there are teams I root for because I like their mascots: the Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, the Spartans of Michigan State, the Salukis of Southern Illinois. There’s something visceral about fandom that cannot be explained, really, and everything I know that troubles me about big-time college basketball doesn’t seem enough to get me off the March bandwagon.
And here it is, March 2015, and here I am again. I spent my last days of spring break field tripping to watch college basketball, its siren song of the same old stories pulling me toward the television even though I know better. Just to make matters worse, I spent my Thursday feeding 20s into the school funding machine—I mean slot machines—at the Horseshoe downtown. Talk about another shameful example of capitalism at its most cynical and exploitative, but, hey, nothing soothes my busy brain like the even hum and ka-ching of the slots, keeping me just close enough to even to keep me sitting there until 5 p.m. when happy hour starts. I sidled up to Guy Fieri’s to order a Miller Lite that came with a side of Miller Lite to go with my Vegas Fries that I think are not tossed in buffalo sauce so much as they are tossed in buffalo-flavored salt, but that is seriously the least of my problems. I stared at the four TVs in front of me, too distracted by how much was happening to comprehend that UCLA’s game-winning last-second shot was a game-winning last-second shot until the replays. It’s all a replay, really, I thought, as I sat there watching the replay of the Georgia State coach falling out of his chair as his player hit the money shot, second beer at my lips, an extra 20 in my wallet. What does it mean to be perfectly happy at just this moment, and why doesn’t knowing better make any difference?