Welcome back to March Madness, the cottage industry that erects itself at the beginning of every spring around the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. This single-elimination style tournament of 68 collegiate basketball programs from around the country competing for college basketball’s highest honor is the most riveting event the NCAA holds. It is also its most egalitarian and morally justifiable.
I don’t want to give the impression that the NCAA is some sort of altruistic organization. It is a brutal capitalist regime that looks to profit off the free labor of teenagers and young twenty-somethings. The television networks and brands that partner with the NCAA bring enormous wealth to the schools and coaches that house and guide these teams. In 2017, the highest paid public employee in 39 of our 50 states was a college football or basketball coach.
Yet, the young adults doing the actual work to put money in their pockets are not paid a dime. Sure, they are bestowed the title of “student athletes” to justify why everyone is getting paid except for them. Yes, many of these “student athletes” are on a full scholarship to their schools. However, ask any one of these kids what their education and college experience is like. They do not study, party, and generally fuck around the way us normies do. Their schedules are composed of practice, team meetings, and weight training sessions all to remain in tip-top shape and compete at the highest level. Their jobs are to be superhuman, and they are paid like sub-humans. They cannot even be paid for their likeness! There are rules and restrictions against them selling their autograph or having brand endorsement deals before they graduate. The NCAA and the schools own them until they either graduate or serve enough time in their respective sport to be eligible for the professional draft. It is unquestionably a modern form of indentured servitude.
However, March Madness is different. Beyond the abuses of the NCAA and the bullshit micro-analysis of predicting the winners (I’ve heard enough bracketology for five lifetimes), are the games themselves. And every year, the games themselves redeem the whole damn structure, if only for three weeks in late March and early April.
March Madness gives the mid-major and low-major Division I schools a chance to compete with the largest, most powerful collegiate basketball programs in the country for the national title. More than likely, one of the large programs will win, because they have more money, resources, and eminence to recruit the top high school prospects, therefore giving them the clear advantage. However, those small schools do have a chance, and a chance is all one can ask for. It’s like rooting for a small coffee shop to win a popularity contest against Starbucks in a Best Latte competition; by the way, Starbucks is Duke.
These schools are referred to like fairy tales or biblical heroes; humble long shots daring to beat the odds and come up triumphant. They are Cinderella teams. They are the Davids vs. the Goliaths. They are the boot-strap pulling underdogs that American society ritualistically lauds.
Which is why it’s our moral duty to root for them.
Win or lose, nothing will change for Duke after this tournament. It will still be the most notorious college basketball program in the country. Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett will still be top NBA draft prospects after their one-and-done season is over. Coach K will still be coaching, with jet black hair dye seeping into his brain and melting away any remaining self-awareness. Duke will be fine.
However, this tournament means something to a school like Murray State, and its wiry, transcendent leader, Ja Morant. Morant is a six-foot three-inch, 175 pound prodigy with the sort of shooting, ball handling and court vision recognizable in NBA superstar point guards like Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook. He is tremendous, and tremendously fun to watch. He led the twelve-seeded Murray State to an 83-64 victory over the five-seeded Marquette in the first round of the tournament.* In that game he recorded the first triple double in the NCAA Tournament since Draymond Green in 2012, with 17 points, 11 rebounds, and 16 (!) assists. It was one of the best performances in tournament history, full stop.
That one performance by Morant gave Murray State a tremendous amount of publicity, which will help them after this tournament is over. Unless you subject yourself to the dreck of Ohio Valley Conference basketball, you likely did not watch Murray State play this year. This is why having the chance to play on national television in front of the whole country is important for a small school. Morant is an All-American and a highly touted NBA draft prospect who most casual fans have never seen. With the ability to perform on a national stage, he can make a name for himself as a college basketball legend. He can also help the Murray State basketball program on a practical level. With this sort of publicity, Murray State may be able to leverage this into booster money. They might be able to recruit better prospects. If they can produce a player like Morant, who’s to say they can’t do it again? This low-major school was just given a major boost by one game and one performance.
This is the real magic behind March Madness. I had to Google that Villanova won the tournament last year, but I remember 16-seeded UMBC trouncing one-seeded Virginia in the first round. I remember 11-seeded Loyola-Chicago making it to the Final Four on the prayers of Sister Jean. These underdog stories lodge in our brains as little, blissful memories to legitimize the American underdog. In return, the mid and low-major programs can use this publicity to better their basketball programs and improve recruitment to their schools.
This is why it is our moral duty to root for the smaller schools. I understand if you have loyalty to a larger program because it is your alma mater. It’s impossible to compete with ingrained school pride. However, the Dukes and the Syracuses and the UNCs and the Villanovas will always pick up bandwagon fans. If you root for Kentucky because your second cousin went there before transferring to a private liberal arts school, you can go straight to hell. Ride with small schools like Murray State, because they stand to reap tangible benefits from the tournament that can actually help them in the long run. Do it for the American Zeitgeist.
Except for Liberty. Liberty can fuck themselves.
*Update: Murray State fell to Florida State in the second round of the tournament 90-62. Goliath wins again.