Words by Andre LaFontant
The action of the annual NCAA tournament could be the stuff of a Jordan Peele screenplay. Thousands of college basketball fans spend the month of March drinking an emotionally unpredictable cocktail of triumph and heartbreak.
It’s no secret that the main reason people love March Madness is due to the ultra-consistent play of 18-22 year olds thrust in front of millions of people. It is genius to make bank on the most skilled of this age group slipping up at the least opportune times. The drama that comes with uncertainty sells at a rate that should never be tampered with.
I mean, it’s a near consensus that college basketball’s professional counterpart, the NBA, could learn a thing or two by leaving their playoff system up to chance rather than having the best team win time and time again. But, the NCAA ends its schooling of the NBA there and we’re left with a most certain result: an exploitative mess. Every March, if one were to listen closely, melodies from the world’s smallest violin could be heard in honor of the kids at the center of this public tragedy.
If only the corruption that has plagued NCAA basketball wasn’t so blatant. The truth behind the NCAA is probably more interesting and gruesome than the first season of True Detective.
The players, acting as walking advertisements for some institution of higher learning, are the sole reason that the spectacle of March Madness is even possible. Sure, the coaches are there too, but let’s be honest: that’s all comic relief. It’s nice to have the coaches ranting and carrying on along the sidelines, juxtaposed against the emotionally draining effort put forth by a kid plucked from prom, pulling up from half court, and single-handedly tearing the hearts out of his opponents with a lone swish. Honestly, whenever I need to get my fix of old dudes in suits acting like cartoon characters, I just catch up on some Curb Your Enthusiasm. No need to dally on the coaches.
The only statistics that coaches caught up in the madness care about are wins, losses, and the occasional tech. The NCAA as an institution seems to mirror the coaches’ preference for dealing in absolutes. The obvious win for the NCAA comes with their production of an entertaining athletic product: lucrative T.V. deals. The same can be said for the coaches, who are incentivized by fat contracts to attract players that will win them games and keep them their jobs.
In a fair system, this would be the part where the players’ earnings would logically tie in. However, the most valuable living assets in this equation won’t ever see a dime. Cue those tiny violins.
If we’re to believe that a “student-athlete,” is valued at the cost of a college scholarship, then there should be a conscious effort in having real “student-athletes” represented on the floor. DeAndre Ayton, the star freshman at Arizona embroiled in a current FBI investigation, lives worlds away from a kid worrying about what grade he gets in Chemistry 101. Kids like Ayton are locked in NBA lottery picks, looking to cash in on their talents while in their youthful prime. The “one-and-done” rule — where student athletes play for a single, nominal year before moving onto the NBA — has been a shallow solution to the right-to-work issues faced by the small percentage of college players that can make a living playing basketball. The NCAA, the schools, and the coaches know that they need their cash cows grazing on campus, even for just a year, in order maintain their first-class tickets on the money train.
So sure, March Madness is a super dope product that creates genuine mayhem that people can’t get enough of. Though why is it impossible to balance integrity and entertainment? Adam Silver, the commissioner of NBA, has made recent comments suggesting his league will take the lead on changing the current landscape of amateur basketball.
With the rebranding effort done by the G-League (think of the minor leagues for baseball) the NBA looks to provide an outlet for aspiring talent to immediately earn a paycheck doing the thing they love most. If the world of college sports refuses to pay these kids, someone will.
Then we can finally make room for the real “student-athletes,” true scholar-amateurs, to have a shining moment in March to themselves. The NCAA can have their system valued the way that it always should have been.
In the meantime though, the music of those tiny violins seems to have waned and those Sweet Sixteen trumpets are sounding. My bracket, like almost everyone else’s, is busted, but I can’t seem to turn away.
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