I have long thought one thing about college basketball: It’s bad. This isn’t mere fogeyism from a sportswriter who grew up rooting for Hakeem Olajuwon when he went by Akeem. Nor is it just because the quality of play has spiraled in the past couple of decades. It’s the insidious exploitation of the athletes’ labor by the NCAA and its member conferences and universities. It’s that the players remain unable to cash in on their fame and likenesses to make some pocket money, while the coaches, often middle-aged millionaire militarist fetishists, tend to be the game’s biggest stars. Even if I had been able to ignore all of that, a series of pay-for-play scandals in recent years has exposed the hypocrisy of the whole enterprise.
For me, things bottomed out in December when Memphis freshman and projected top NBA draft pick James Wiseman left school midway through a 12-game suspension stemming from an NCAA investigation. A factor in Wiseman’s decision to leave was the NCAA’s requirement that he donate $11,500 to charity, the same amount his coach Penny Hardaway had given to Wiseman’s mother in 2017 to help with the move to Memphis, before Hardaway was even the coach there.
“I couldn’t use a GoFundMe page that [TV analyst] Jay Williams put out for me,” Wiseman told ESPN. “Couldn’t use any outside sources that related to that. I had to get it on my own. But that was pretty impossible because, I mean, I didn’t have the money. I was an average college student.”
Here was college basketball, a sport in desperate need of elite talent, running off someone who met that description over money that exchanged hands before either Wiseman or Hardaway were even at Memphis or under the auspices of the NCAA. It only makes sense when you understand college basketball is committed to the fiction of amateurism—and therefore irredeemably awful.
That’s why I can’t believe how sad I am that it’s all over before the real payoff: March Madness.
What is March without March Madness? The new coronavirus has surely created many graver consequences than the loss of three weeks of college basketball, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a loss all the same. Even in years when we aren’t facing an unprecedented national crisis, the tournament, which was supposed to start this week, has always been a rallying and bonding exercise for both serious sports fans and their officemates who couldn’t care less but are drawn to the friendly, low-stakes competition of a bracket. What is March without getting to mock the friend who picked an Ivy League program to pull off an upset based on name recognition alone? In a time of social isolation, all of the little things we used to do—our mundane interactions, the contact we took for granted—feel weighted with meaning. Following the tournament was a fun little diversion before we needed those little diversions in the worst way.
It’s funny to miss this particular March Madness. The men didn’t have many real stars or storylines. There wasn’t a great—or even particularly interesting—team this year. Of the 10 top-ranked teams in the most-recent AP poll, four were from midmajor conferences. Top-ranked Kansas already had three losses. Ninth-ranked Michigan State had nine. Not even the contenders for the Naismith Trophy Player of the Year award are expected to be top-flight NBA contributors. No disrespect to Udoka Azubuike and Cassius Winston.
In fact, the biggest star in college basketball wasn’t a male player at all. It was Sabrina Ionescu, recently named ESPN W’s women’s College Player of the Year. No one else in college ball had quite the moment Ionescu did this year when she racked up her 26th career triple double in a win over Stanford on Feb. 24, the same day she eulogized her friends Kobe and Gianna Bryant in Los Angeles. It’s a bummer that we won’t get to see Ionescu chase that elusive national championship for Oregon, the primary reason she put off leaving for the WNBA last year.
But the bigger bummer is thinking of all the other players who will remain unknown, the stories that will go untold without March Madness.
You could see the agony of the players in their reactions last week to the news that the NCAA had made the call to cancel:
They know better than anyone what they’ll be missing. Just imagine spending most of your time enduring the thankless grind of practice and preparation, the early-morning wind sprints, the late-night film sessions. That’s the stuff fans and media don’t often get to see. For players, who don’t get paid, who don’t get to enjoy the typical college experience, the games in March are the reward.
The player responses reminded me of a scene last year from the bowels of the SAP Center in San Jose, California, when I was working for ESPN. I was waiting around on the hero of the moment, a spindly 6-foot-6 guard from Liberty University named Caleb Homesley. About an hour earlier, he’d played the game of his life, scoring a career-high 30 points in an 80–76 upset over Mississippi State. It was the first win in the history of the tournament for Liberty.
Homesley had never had his time in the spotlight until then, having somehow gritted his way through three season-ending injuries in five years. “Tonight it was just my time,” Homesley said that night, leaning back into his locker with huge packs of ice on each knee.
Back in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, Homesley’s AAU coach took particular pride in seeing it all come together for his former player. “I always felt like he could’ve played at a big school. But it obviously worked out,” Derrick Wall told me.
I had come into the evening disinclined to root for Homesley or Liberty. Yes, there’s the emotional distance sports writers like myself develop to keep from becoming invested in the outcome. But Liberty’s athletics program is, in many ways, a kind of façade for the institution’s darker ambitions and impulses. In the past week alone, Liberty has ignored calls to cancel in-person classes, and president Jerry Falwell Jr. has implied that coronavirus is a media plot to hurt President Donald Trump. If Liberty’s basketball teams perform well, it helps to distract from Falwell and his mandate. I’ll never forget looking up into the stands in San Jose last year, watching as Falwell and his family tried their best to behave like regular ol’ basketball fans.
I hadn’t thought much about Homesley and Liberty again until last week, when I realized the Flames went 30–4 and earned an automatic berth into the tournament. Homesley emerged as Liberty’s best player this season, averaging team highs in points and assists. Despite the script on the front of his jersey, it would’ve been nice to see what Homesley had in store for an encore. But now, his college story will end with the anonymity it started in, which is sad. The underdog getting his moment in the sun is what March Madness is supposed to be all about.
There’s one last thing that’s frustrating about the cancellation. A few years ago, ESPN analyst and former NBA player Jalen Rose created a week’s worth of controversy by calling for the players to boycott the tournament. Rose, who first came to fame as a college star at Michigan in the 1990s, urged the players to consider their value and push for a fair share of the NCAA Tournament revenue, estimated to be as much as $900 million in 2015.
It’s not so far-fetched an idea. Twenty-five years ago, according to the Atlantic, players from Wake Forest, UCLA, and then-top-ranked Massachusetts seriously discussed going on strike before the opening games of the 1995 men’s tournament. Unfortunately, it never came to pass. “It was going to be huge,” former UMass guard Rigo Nunez said in a radio interview. “Definitely change the way we operate from an NCAA perspective, the whole scope of amateur sports.”
Instead, not much has changed since 1995, other than the declining quality of the games and the increasing amount of money going to everyone but the players. The only thing that could’ve made the cancellation of this year’s tournament feel good is if the players were the ones who decided to end it. Instead they worked their butts off all year for other people’s gain, and they don’t even get the reward of one shining moment.