Go Ahead, Cheer March Madness, But Be Sure To Turn Off Your Ethics Alarms


It is true that watching, rooting for, betting on and generally contributing to the perpetuation of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament, March Madness, and thus big time college basketball generally, is not as unethical as supporting pro football…after all, as Rationalization #22 reminds us, at least we aren’t killing anyone. Still, the whole system is rotten to the core: it warps higher education priorities, it instills toxic values in students, it has nothing to do with student athletics, and it rewards deceit, bribery, and cheating. FACT: Colleges would be better and the culture would be healthier without it.

Unfortunately, that would require people like the President of the United States to show some restraint for the good of society and the education of our children, and say, “Nope. College is for education, and spending millions to create teams of mercenaries who are only interested in making the NBA is a disgraceful misapplication of resources as well as inherently corrupting.”

You doubt that description? Look at the University of Massachusetts, which announced that it will retire a jersey in honor of  John Calipari to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the university’s 1996 appearance in the men’s basketball Final Four, when he was the coach. Calipari, the university noted in the announcement, “catapulted” the university to “national prominence.” Well, that’s one description.  Because the N.C.A.A. eventually found out that Calipari’s star player, Marcus Camby, had accepted riches and, ah, “services” (prostitution services, for example), from sports agents, the university had to pay $151,000 in fines—how many indigent students’ tuition might that have paid for? At least one—and the Final Four appearance that Calipari is being honored for was wiped from the record books. He, of course, knew nothing about this. As Michael Powell pointedly recounts in his sports column for the New York Times, he never does, though for some reason scandals just seem to pop up on teams he coaches. After accepting a huge salary to coach in the NBA, Calipari coached basketball—as usual in big time basketball, at the salary of about ten professors—at Memphis, and before he left, the NCAA. stripped Memphis of a season of wins.

Beneath the shiny surface and the hype, March Madness is just about pro sports contracts and money, and everyone who touches it is corrupted. The e-mail UMASS sent to Powell protesting his inquiry is a classic, worthy of Paul Begala, Lanny Davis or Jay Carney…or maybe P.T. Barnum:

“To argue that the University of Massachusetts should not honor these accomplishments because of press reports speculating about improper behavior flies in the face of the actual history. Furthermore, Calipari has not been found to have violated an N.C.A.A. regulation at any time in his career.”

Such people are entrusted with imbuing values and life skills in our young for tuition fees that are so large that they drive families into crisis. Is being able to cheer for a basketball team of ringers who pretend to represent one’s alma mater worth it? A modicum of quality thought dictates the answer.

Joseph Epstein, who has studied the business of college sports, writes in the Wall Street Journal that he cannot keep his gorge down sufficiently, knowing what he would be cheering, to follow March Madness except for the purpose of wishing a pox on all involved. He writes,

The athletes on these big-time college teams, despite being called student-athletes or (my favorite) scholar-athletes, really don’t have much to do with the schools. They often live in their own dorms, eat at their own training tables. Many seem merely passing through town on their way to professional contracts… The players are, in effect, rented, like bridge chairs for a large dinner party. In the case of basketball, the lease has become an increasingly short one. “One and done” is the current phrase to describe those college-basketball players who use universities to showcase their skills before going off to the National Basketball Association after their freshman year. If it all seems rather squalid, that’s because in fact it is….

Why can’t I set all this aside and find some team or other to cheer for? What about regional affiliation? As a Midwesterner, maybe I should root for Michigan State or Wisconsin. Then I ask myself what does region have to do with anything. Once upon a time, the rosters of such schools as Illinois and Indiana were filled with kids from Illinois and Indiana, and thus the teams truly represented their states. No longer. Now many of the players don’t even come from America, but are Central or Eastern Europeans, working their way up to the NBA. Favorite local players don’t hang around for long. Jabari Parker, a talented Chicago high-school player whose fortunes at Duke I was following, turned out to be a one-and-done college player, and is now in the NBA.

The nation is willing to assist, reward and applaud the ongoing pollution of values and mission in its universities, and the subsequent degrading of their supposed purpose, for the fun of bracket contests and the fantasy that the players on the floor actually prove something worth taking pride in for a school’s addled alumni. It defies all logic.


Spark and Facts: New York Times

Source: Wall Street Journal

8 thoughts on “Go Ahead, Cheer March Madness, But Be Sure To Turn Off Your Ethics Alarms

  1. As a proud U.W. Alum (Class of ’79), that watches in a certified “Red Room,” runs the Office Pool (my dog Hurley won it all last year and donated the $400 to charities), and bleeds Cardinal-n-White I say:



  2. Do you recall the cheating scandals in West Point regarding its football team? Ity is amazing that this sort of thing can even corrupt West Point.

  3. I did a turn with ‘student’ politics and was totally disgusted when over 90% of all the student activity fees for thousands and thousands of students went to football, benefiting the relative handful of players, team staff, and alumni egos. Basketball got a big slice of the remainder, even if neither was what you would call competitive. (Other sports got more proportional funding to student participation) Students had no choice in how that money was spent. Those programs made little impact on a school that grew from a single trade, aside from cost.Student funding of the sports team was close to the cost of text books, so going further into debt for the team was not helpful to the mass of students.

  4. I enjoy college basketball. I’m happy that my PhD alma mater has the longest current streak of consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, and that my current employer has been represented for the past two years. Still, the corruptive power of sports–especially football and men’s basketball–cannot be ignored. They represent a huge drain on the finances of a university, an egregiously warped set of priorities, and (often) a dilution of the academic integrity of the institution.

    There are, of course, some easy fixes to the ethical problems you describe–but they would require the NBA, the NCAA, the television networks, and/or the athletic departments in major conferences to care about anything but their own bottom lines, and that’s not likely to happen in the foreseeable future.

    By the way, Calipari wasn’t exactly the first coach to bring UMass to prominence. They’d been to the NCAA tournament before his arrival, and they’d been to the NIT several times–this was before every mediocre team from a major conference got to play in the post-season. Oh, and Julius “Dr. J” Erving, one of the all-time greats, played there 20 years before Calipari took over the program.

    But Calipari is the only coach to have had Final Four appearances with two different schools vacated by the NCAA. There is that. Color me unsurprised if he makes it three.

  5. The purpose of college athletics (ironically enough) was to build character and physical stamina in the young men who attended their schools. The rise of professional sports played its role in the corruptive process, without question! I still can’t help but think that the keystone in this is the existence of athletic scholarships. Abolishing the practice wouldn’t reform the entire system, but it might help a great deal. Besides, the time HAS to come when pro sports will price itself out of the big time. Only in sports-loving America would this have gone on as long as it has.

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