I thoroughly enjoyed March Madness, both the men's and women's versions. For three weeks in the early days of the spring season, I renew my subscription with college basketball and am edutained on all things March Madness.
It is a time that engendered work morale spikes, rooted in imperfect bracket predictions and the chance that overworked, underpaid employees will cash out on an office pool lottery built from their very own desk change cups and afternoon Tim Horton's coffee run allotments. Mini hoops get hung on office doors for impromptu paper ball dunk contests and great plays are re-enacted by local news crews unable to air highlights of the very sport they cover because of the hierarchy of money structured agreements between the NCAA and its multiple March Madness broadcast partners.
A bevy of hungry, wide-eyed teams. More Networks. Too many credit card commercials. Too Much Dick Vitale. Not Enough Bill Raftery. No Gus Johnson. Countless floor burns. Multiple tears. Clutch shots. One epic dance. One dream realized.
Who knew a school from the former and now defunct Yankee Conference would be one of the most dominant basketball programs in college history? Combined, the University of Connecticut men's and women's teams have been in the NCAA Tournament final game 13 times. They've never lost. Ever.
I watched as Geno Auriemma and his Lady Huskies won their ninth title in 19 years, defeating Notre Dame easily and once again lording over the women's game with whispers and questions rattling The ladies' college hoops king's cage about whether or not his talents could be applied similarly in the men's game.
I saw Guelph, Ontario's and Notre Dame senior forward Natalie Achonwa, thrice a bridesmaid, never the bride in the NCAA final, have to endure the insult of her team once again losing a chance at glory and an undefeated season to the schoolyard bully in UConn, in part due to suffering a devastating knee injury during the Elite Eight game that ended her season and college career.
I was not in shock or awe that Derrick Gordon, starting guard from the University of Massachusetts, a school where I created and once taught the world's first university accredited course on hip-hop culture, now also has the distinction of having the first Division I male basketball player to come out as openly gay.
I viewed a March Madness tournament where Canadian lights shone brightly in fellow freshmen Kansas' Andrew Wiggins and Syracuse's Tyler Ennis, senior Melvin Ejim of Iowa State, Michigan sophomore Nik Stauskas and more. Their play shined a collective light on the immense talents north of the 49th parallel who contributed in meaningful ways during the Tournament and offered hope and confidence for young Canadian hoop stars to follow.
I reveled in UConn men's coach Kevin Ollie's victory over John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats, despite picking the new Fab Five freshmen from Lexington to win it all on my TSN Radio basketball program, #1On1 with Will and Duane. And the revelry was not rooted in a dislike for Coach Cal's crew. The joy was in the knowledge that, 30 years after Georgetown's John Thompson became the first black man to win an NCAA title with a team full of inner city black kids, possibly influenced by the lure of profit from a new player in the illicit drug trade called crack and the music of an emerging and grossly misunderstood subculture called hip-hop, Kevin Ollie joined Thompson, newly minted Naismith Basketball Hall of Famer Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith as the only black coaches to ever win the national title.
My merriment was quelled, however, by the admission of the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, UConn senior PG Shabazz Napier. As initially reported by CNN's Sara Ganim, Napier's statement was stunning.
“I don't feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I'm starving," he said. "I just feel like a student-athlete, and sometimes, like I said, there's hungry nights and I'm not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities.”
I observed a game with multi-billion dollar stakes in which the players have no financial stake due to the draconian statutes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which still has them reaching for “One Shining Moment” as the UConn men's program fails to graduate more than eight per cent of its starving, underfed players. I then pondered former March Madness champ and UCLA forward Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit against the NCAA, the Northwestern University athletes who won their fight to unionize against the NCAA and Jalen Rose's youthful revelation years ago on how he and his Fab Five teammates were being flagrantly exploited by the NCAA and its corporate stakeholders while a star at Michigan. It occurred to me that the 2013-2014 men's final was possibly a referendum on the future of college basketball profiteering: Calipari's "one and done" regime versus the NCAA's preferred method of currency exchange with the NBA - keeping the student-athletes on campus playing this game for as long as possible.
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver's wish to subsidize collegiate student-athletes in order to keep the collusive financial arrangement with the NCAA as close to status quo, without hemorrhaging too much blood, seems relatively progressive at cursory glance. And the new commish's potential good fortune to place a positive stamp on his early tenure may be rooted in Napier's hunger. ESPN's Darren Rovell recently reported that Adam Silver is willing to trade markers with the NCAA, its student-athletes and the NBAPA with concessions on all sides to make the vehicle move.
"Rather than focusing on a salary and thinking of them as employees, I would go to their basic necessities," said Silver. "I think if Shabazz Napier is saying he is going hungry, my God, it seems hard to believe, but there should be ample food for the players."
Commissioner Silver wants to raise the NBA entry age limit from 19 to 20 and may be able to do so in exchange for his college player subsidy initiative. Silver's very public overtures about changes that can be made to an archaic, rotted NCAA system run by that cabal's boss, Dr. Mark Emmert, who, naturally, is vehemently opposed to any sort of compensation for student-athletes, a term created to protect the schools and NCAA itself against the liability of paying worker's compensation for injured “student-athletes,” are encouraging, even in theory. But what about offering a “bare necessities” cost of living stipend, daily meal per diems and limited injury insurance to these young men, who may or may not be ready for the fine hardwood courts of the National Basketball Association, but wish to ply their trade professionally? Is it possible for these young men to also get an education with the same subsidies Commissioner Silver is suggesting for the NCAA by giving these monies to the NBA's already-established minor league, the National Basketball Development League? No matter the motivations of Adam Silver, it would seem that the winds of change are on the horizon for intercollegiate athletics and its long partnership with professional sport to finally call it what it really is now.
So yeah… That's what I learned during March Madness this year.
I can only hope you learned some things, too.