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The romance is gone

On March Madness and the façade of amateurism

Saint Peter’s Doug Edert reaches for a pass during the Sweet 16 round of the 2022 NCAA tournament, on March 25, 2022, in Philadelphia. Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke

The romance is gone
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“Want to write something Kluckian on March Madness?” my editor wrote.

“I have to come clean and admit that I’m a two-trick pony when it comes to sports,” I replied. “Football and boxing. I don’t watch college basketball at all.”

I’m asked on a regular basis A) if I filled out a bracket or B) to fill out a bracket. I’ll do so, but only depending on how much I need to please the person who asked. I should add that I’m an ardent supporter of the teams at Union University (where I teach), but I haven’t watched college basketball on television in years due to a combination of finding it boring and not having the time.

“The column won’t be fun or funny,” I replied to the editor. This is that column.

March Madness is, of course, a lot of fun for a lot of people. I have memories of the assistant football coach/math teachers at my high school wheeling in bulky televisions on AV carts to watch the games during class. It’s escapist and fun for a certain kind of person, and there’s certainly a place for that.

To me, March Madness exists as a sort of time capsule as a nostalgic exercise in celebrating amateurism—even though the transfer portal, NIL, and legalized gambling have made it into anything but an exercise in authentic amateurism. The student-athletes are tied to adults winning and losing a lot of money and, in some cases, making lots of money for themselves (NIL). The student-athletes transfer around the country searching for the perfect situation, leaving some academic schlub (like me!) to make sense of their transcripts.

To wit, last year’s March Madness darling Doug Edert—who became a March Madness darling due to having an ironic mustache and playing well enough to put a plucky small-college program (St. Peter’s) on our collective radar—promptly transferred to a slightly-less-small program (Bryant), rendering the whole thing gradations less romantic. I remember that you could buy Doug Edert t-shirts last year featuring the ironic mustache. It was fun, even for me.

College basketball basically seems to be doing college basketball karaoke at this point.

And yet, with all of the truly elite players going to the NBA after a year, or in some cases after no college at all and a year of seasoning in the G-League or overseas, college basketball basically seems to be doing college basketball karaoke at this point, as the pageantry we get during March feeds our nostalgia at a small level but feeds the legalized gambling industry at a much larger level.

To put a fine point on it: It’s hard to feel romantic about a kid transferring four times and landing an NIL deal with a local car dealer/booster. That said, I have no problem with that kid making money in an industry that will pay him money. I have student writers in my program who write professionally for pay before graduation, and I am proud of them. Is this any different?

Probably not, technically.

But Edert is a great example of what sports give and take away. The kid is undoubtedly a great competitor and a tireless worker who rose to the top of his industry for a very short moment and, for that brief moment, was rewarded for it. And then it was basically forgotten. There’s a good lesson for us parents: sports give and take away.

I see many Christian parents (I am one) spending an awful lot of time and money wishing their kids could be college athletes. But many of the college athletes I know hate their schedules, lament their lack of a “college experience” and are already viewing the end of their careers (a hard moment for anyone) at the end of a long tunnel filled with classes they barely attend (due to travel), meetings, workouts, practices, and games. Being a college professor has re-oriented my dreams vis-à-vis my kids being college athletes.

Perhaps March Madness is best enjoyed via the remove of television, and the best thing about March Madness is being a child, dreaming about being a part of it. CBS will play its music, somebody will clip down the nets, millions of dollars will be won and lost, and hundreds of kids will be on different teams next year—when we’ll do it all over again.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the award-winning internationally published author of 30 books, and his journalism has appeared in ESPN the Magazine, USA Today, and many other outlets. He is screenwriter and co-producer on the upcoming feature film Silverdome and co-hosts The Happy Rant Podcast and The Kluck Podcast.  Ted won back-to-back Christianity Today Book of the Year Awards in 2007 and 2008 and was a 2008 Michigan Notable Book Award winner for his football memoir, Paper Tiger: One Athlete’s Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football.  He currently serves as an associate professor of journalism at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., and coaches long snappers at Lane College. He and his wife Kristin have two children.

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