Debating March Madness: ToM Dukes It Out over the Meaning of the NCAA Tournament

ToM headquarters bubbled over with contentious enthusiasm this week, as writers and staffers debated the merits of March Madness. Inspired by the musings of Keith Orejel and the rantings of Clement Lime, ToM scribes raised workplace alienation to new and surprising levels this week. In an effort to stem this tide of negativity, we’ve allotted the two raconteurs at the heart of this dispute, Keith and Clement, one last word regarding their positions.  To paraphrase Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome, “Two men enter, one man leaves.”


Click for Keith Orejel’s: American Basketball, American Democracy: The Meaning of March Madness”

Click for Clement Lime’s: “The Fallacy of March Madness or How I Learned to Love the NBA and Stop Worrying about the NCAAs”


American Basketball, American Democracy: The Meaning of March Madness, A Brief History


While the Final Four has been determined, the implications of this quadrumvirate are far from clear. Though Wichita State gives us all hope that perhaps the little guy can in fact triumph, the traditional powerhouse schools of Michigan, Syracuse, and Louisville still stand in their way. As suggested in my original piece, more is on the line here than a mere championship title. In the balance hang the democratic hopes and aspirations of millions of Americans. Large swathes of the public will imbue Wichita State’s victory with their desire for social mobility, economic security, and democratic possibilities in a world where all are becoming out of reach in their own lives. Opposing these egalitarian crusaders is a system of privilege, inequality, and elitism that is seemingly built into the structure of not only college basketball and sports, but also American society.

Regardless of whether or not Wichita State wins, we should not be so easily hoodwinked. The system of structural inequality that defines college basketball, which allows powerhouse schools and conferences to reign supreme year after year, will not be overturned with Wichita State’s victory. More likely, the school will suffer a similar fate as George Mason and Butler in years past, allowed to come within grasp of their Cinderella fantasies only to have their hoop dreams turn into a pumpkin at the stroke of March Madness’s midnight. Or perhaps they will experience a Punic Victory similar to Florida Gulf Coast, who saw their school plucked out of obscurity and thrown into the national limelight during the NCAA Tournament, only to have their coach lured away to a big conference job and even bigger pay day within what seemed like hours of their Sweet Sixteen defeat.

So then is nothing at stake here? Should we turn our eyes away from college hoops, as the muckraking Clement Lime suggests, casting our vision towards the crass, but honest, corporate professional franchises and millionaire athletes of the NBA? I would argue no. The NCAA Tournament is indeed polluted by wealth, power, and inequality, where billion dollar universities dominate and exploit their student athletes, many impoverished African Americans, in a feudal manner. However, to accept the “honest graft” of the NBA would be to argue that Americans’ democratic sensibilities, though more artifice than actuality, do nothing to keep corporate influences and neoliberal pipe dreams in check. As I suggested in my original piece, to embrace the democratic spirit that enlivens the American people’s love of March Madness is not to naively overlook college basketball’s con game, but rather to show that what we cherish about the NCAA Tournament is its appearance of fair play, equal opportunity, and a level playing field. To acknowledge the farcical way that the inequalities of college basketball and American society make a mockery of these ideals should not detract us from embracing said values. We should in fact aim to amplify and solidify these egalitarian impulses by ridding ourselves of the contagions of inequality and privilege that keep those democratic aspirations from being democratic realities. In both American basketball and American society, what we need is more democratic institutions, not an acceptance of corporate power (in the form of pro franchises) and unlimited wealth (for both athletes and team owners) merely because our neoliberal moment does not make it seem necessary for the NBA to mask its profiteering motives.

Re: The Fallacy of March Madness or How I Learned to Love the NBA and Stop Worrying about the NCAAs

Big, not really a manual for corporate success

Josh: I’m much better at video hockey.

Paul: That’s not a sport.

Josh: It requires hand and eye coordination.

Paul: It’s not a sport if you don’t sweat.

Josh: What about golf? It’s a sport and you don’t sweat.

Paul: It’s not a sport if you let a machine do all the work.

Josh: What about car racing?

Paul: Shut up, Baskin.

– from the movie Big, 1985

Hard to believe it’s been 25 years since the Tom Hanks coming of age (??) classic Big appeared in theaters. The movie more or less tells the story of a teenage boy who mistakenly wishes for adulthood, a wish granted to him by a dubious mechanized fortune teller at his local New Jersey carnival.  When Josh awakes the next morning as a fully grown adult he retreats to the city, where he finds employment at a toy company and rapidly climbs the corporate ladder to a new executive office due in great part to his childlike enthusiasm and honesty.  Indeed, his lack of guile reveals the movie’s basic conceit: we need to remain connected to our childhood selves in some way or otherwise we risk curdling into mature bitterness.

What in God’s name does this have to do with the Final Four? Everything. Big is a myth, a fairy tale to salve our souls from decomposition, much like the NCAA and March Madness.  Symbolism only means something if the underlying principle can be harnessed for the greater good, but the underlying structure of the NCAA promotes the very “neoliberal pipe dreams” Mr. Orejel abhors. The NCAA is all guile and subterfuge; to exult an event it organizes and profits from while placing players in indentured servitude seems more than mistaken.  Yes, we should all push for democracy and representation but using a Trojan horse like March Madness for such endeavors seems misguided.

Take another movie that just turned 25, Top Gun.  As noted by film critics Alison Wilmore and Matt Singer, the movie depicts the most sanitized version of warfare ever; Navy Top Gun pilots never fire a single shot, instead just getting your targeting system to lock on your opponent, whether a fellow elite American pilot or a nefarious Soviet, represented victory. Not exactly the “highway to the danger zone.” If I wanted to show people the homoerotocism of 1980s beach volleyball games between enlisted personnel, Top Gun is my jam, but depicting the brutality of war, not really.  Similarly, holding up March Madness as a symbol of something it fundamentally isn’t is equally fallible.  In 1985, the Big East sent three teams to the Final Four: mythic, grand, and disconcerting at once.  However, as much as I loved it, the truth is there was nothing surprising about a proto super conference dominating play; it represented the regrettable future.  March Madness embodies or symbolizes democracy and fair play as much as Big testifies to corporate advancement or Top Gun does aerial warfare.