National Commentary

Hoop Realities

bentonmugMen’s college basketball is arguably the best spectator sport of all, notwithstanding that there are an abundance of fans who consider their particular favorites to be better. Men’s NCAA hoops are filled with drama, adrenaline, nerves of steel, the smell of teen spirit, and the highs and lows of victory and defeat among males still young enough to have not yet thought about resigning their lives to their destined numbing routines known as boring careers, mortgages, families, nostalgia, retirement and decline.

bentonmugMen’s college basketball is arguably the best spectator sport of all, notwithstanding that there are an abundance of fans who consider their particular favorites to be better. Men’s NCAA hoops are filled with drama, adrenaline, nerves of steel, the smell of teen spirit, and the highs and lows of victory and defeat among males still young enough to have not yet thought about resigning their lives to their destined numbing routines known as boring careers, mortgages, families, nostalgia, retirement and decline.

Professional basketball offers a small cadre of stallions with clearly superior athletic abilities and skills, but they know they’re that good, and it shows. Because they get paid ridiculous amounts, and since money is the name of the game, it doesn’t matter as much to them if they win or lose.

Not so for the college players. In the post-season NCAA tournament, which culminates with a new national champion this Monday night, it’s win or go home, it’s win or the lights, the thousands of screaming fans, the gyrating bands and pom-poms, the national TV cameras, go out, and you exit the arena, dragging a limp duffel bag back to obscurity.

Only a miniscule handful go on to enjoy anything comparable to such glory ever again.

That reality is a compelling, if background, component of what makes the NCAA tournament so gripping. Diving for loose balls is, for the players, diving for the remaining shards of the peak of their lives. Their moments in the sun are excruciatingly fleeting.

It’s truly amazing to me (and I played college sports, and had a baseball scholarship, no less) how, faced with such pressure, these college players nowadays can so coolly drain buzzer-beating threes time after time, much less even hit the rim with a clutch free throw.

Any serious discussion of big-time college sports, however, must include consideration of the glaring anomaly of coaches and everyone associated with universities for which athletes play getting incredibly rich, with multi-million dollar contracts, while the players, who do all the work, who put in obscene amounts of time on their sport, leaving almost nothing for their studies, get not a dime.

It’s almost as if America says to these kids, “We want to watch you sweat, and train, and sweat more, put away your books to strive and excel and thrill us out on a basketball court. Of course, we’re not going to pay you, because once we’re done with you, we’re going to throw you back on the treadmill toward your assigned role as a mediocre servant of the ruling class in our hum-drum society. If you’re really lucky and smart, you might get a small share of the riches reserved for our elites, at least enough to afford season tickets of your own to watch the follow-on generations of the young and sweaty get run through the same sports factory, as you get fat, lazy and put out to pasture.”

And then this: Doesn’t it strike you as odd that that every young person who commits his or her heart and soul to excel as an athlete winds up a loser? Every single one, that is, except those on the one team that finally wins it all.

What does it do for the psyche of a culture to have as a matter of routine a ritual whereby its talented young athletes knock themselves out only to wind up, except for the one team out of countless others, inevitably losing?

Watching the athletes “leaving it all out there,” as in “giving it all they had,” and slumping to the floor with a mix of exhaustion, emotional agony and depression as they lose, even if they’ve made it to the finals, it is clear that losing when a championship may be within reach can even be harder than losing much earlier on.

Does this reflect a society where getting used to the idea of trying hard, only to lose, is the norm? How much of our social paradigm is rooted in the grooming of its best young men to thrust themselves onto a battlefield, and fight like hell, without regard for a likely outcome of their death? That’s what we call “glory” and “bravery.” And then, for those who survive, they are channeled, as a matter of routine, into a life of colorless monotony and mediocrity, where inevitable defeat comes in the noxious, colorless, odorless form of a “comfortably numb” resignation.

 


Nicholas Benton may be emailed at [email protected]