March Madness

Two stories in this week’s NYT caught my attention. The first, a rather sad but predictable cautionary tale, chronicled the fall from NBA greatness to serial bankruptcy, homelessness and the early death from colon cancer of former University of Minnesota star Ray Williams.  The second told the Cinderella story of Florida Gulf Coast University’s path to the Sweet Sixteen. Listening to FGCU’s players being interviewed after the game, I wondered how many would graduate and what might become of them when the foul line wasn’t on the court but in real life. FGCU’s coach has had somewhat of a Cinderella story himself, having graduated from a school not known for its basketball (Johns Hopkins) and apprenticing in the NBA before coaching in the (semi-pro) Division I of the NCAA.  Presumably he is truly mentoring his acolytes, who chanted “Andy, Andy” in reverence after the big win?

Big time college sports, for all of its allure, isn’t just March Madness, it is madness, period. What suckers we Americans are for the soap opera stories of the rise from nowhere to national celebrity epitomized by likes of a Manti Teo. Unprepared and thrust into early limelight, his fall was public spectacle. Did his coaches or teammates at Notre Dame ever bother to question his unbelievable personal story, or did they just ride his coattails into the pages of Sports Illustrated?

On a related note, Jerry Sandusky gave an interview this week, which no one wanted to hear. Craving mythmaking, the college football public refused to believe for years that a Jerry Sandusky could operate within the sanctuary that was Penn State football, beneath the nose of the saintly Joe Paterno.  Now, condemned, Sandusky is persona non grata. On to the NFL draft we go.

Also this week, the Supreme Court accepted yet another case challenging affirmative action policies at universities. Pundits suggest the likelihood that the conservatives will vanquish “race-based” admission policies. Nonetheless we watch, mesmerized, as team after team competes on national television — looking more like the majority brown, yellow or black America that the Census Bureau advises will be here as early as 2018 than the “real” university world, which the Times also advises us is richer and whiter than it has been since before the GI Bill provided that earlier form of affirmative action.

The real crisis of American higher education isn’t the affirmative action targeted by the conservative Supremes, it is the return to country club education for the few (I’m looking at you High Point), expensive mediocrity for the many and entertainment for the rest of us at the cost of the continuing exploitation of “student athletes.” The predatory power of big time sports franchises to conflate powerhouse athletics with not just academic respectability but the social good of granting Horatio Alger – like opportunity to the meritorious athlete while denying the very same to academically striving (but much less entertaining) applicants is one of our best hampered pieces of national dirty laundry. As student debt grows ever larger (it is currently bigger in aggregate than all U.S. credit card debt put together) let’s party on, to the Elite Eight and the Final Four!


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