Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 18, 2021

Hoping The Return Of The Madness Isn’t Insane

A NOTE TO READERS: For the first time in a year, On Sports and Life is about to do some traveling, so there will be no post on Sunday. The regular schedule will resume next Thursday. Stay safe, and as always, thanks for reading.

Everywhere one looks there are signs of our collective movement toward recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some are national in scope, such as the steadily rising daily count of vaccine shots administered, or the gradually declining trend lines of newly diagnosed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths across the country. Others are localized, with increases in capacity limits for restaurants or retail outlets in a city or state being but one example. But symbols both great and small are important, so even a very specific example of progress can carry great meaning for those who in the last year have discovered how much they missed what had long been taken for granted. So it is that for many sports fans, the prospect of songwriter David Barrett once again earning royalties is welcome news.

Barrett has written countless songs, released six albums, and won an Emmy Award for the musical score to a PBS documentary about author C.S. Lewis. But as happens not infrequently in the music business, one particular song of his long ago took on a life of its own and has since achieved a level of fame far greater than that of its composer.

In 1986, Barrett was trying to make ends meet as a folksinger, playing coffee houses and clubs to audiences who often treated his offerings as little more than background noise. After finishing a show at a Michigan pub in March of that year, Barrett stayed to catch part of an NBA game on the television behind the bar. He was struck by the intensity and focus of Boston Celtics star Larry Bird, and tried to describe the magic of an athlete playing “in the zone” to a waitress. While she showed no interest, perhaps taking the soliloquy as a ham-handed pickup attempt, Barrett was sincere in his admiration for those moments when sports become poetry, and by the next day he had the makings of a song. A few months later, he gave the finished tune to a friend, who happened to have connections at CBS Sports.

The song was “One Shining Moment,” and when its brief snare drum intro is followed by the opening horns as a new national champion men’s team celebrates less than three weeks from now, sports fans will know that one year after both the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments became two of the most prominent events to be cancelled when the pandemic brought sports to an abrupt halt, March Madness returned. Barrett’s composition has accompanied CBS’s closing recap of tournament highlights since 1987, and the silence that replaced it last spring was as sure a sign of COVID-19’s upending of the sports calendar as the lack of buzzer-beaters and the absence of work colleagues lamenting their busted brackets during office coffee breaks.

The first four play-in games of the men’s tournament are being contested as this is written, with the women’s tourney scheduled to get underway this weekend. The 64 women’s and 68 men’s teams will be steadily whittled down until just two of each remain, with the championship matchups scheduled for the first Sunday and Monday in April. The NCAA’s major concession to the pandemic has been to abandon the usual national scope of these games, instead scheduling each tournament for single geographic areas – greater Indianapolis for the men and the Austin-San Antonio corridor for the women. This allows the NCAA to create a semi-bubble environment for the participants, with teams theoretically restricted to their hotels when not on the court.

That these tournaments would be played this year has been a certainty for months, even before the rollout of the coronavirus vaccines. “One Shining Moment” celebrates the nobility of sport and the capacity of an athlete to overcome adversity and excel in a single, defining instant. No wonder CBS and the NCAA love it as the musical endnote to each year’s coverage. But before getting too misty-eyed, one should remember that the NCAA recently reported a $600 million decline in revenue last year, largely because of the cancellation of the association’s two cash cows, these events. So even though college basketball’s regular season proceeded in fits and starts, with a few leagues sitting out entirely, some teams in others playing reduced schedules due to COVID-related interruptions, and a handful of prominent coaches questioning the wisdom of playing on through a pandemic, the health of its balance sheet was always going to be the NCAA’s primary consideration.

Fans understandably welcome the tipoff of these two events, even if the brackets for office pools must be filled out virtually. And bookmakers are expected to do a booming business, second only to the Super Bowl. Still, the road ahead is unlikely to be smooth, simply because of the number of people involved. With the fields for both tournaments locked, it seems almost inevitable that there will be a walkover at some point, with a team advancing automatically after its scheduled opponent is forced to drop out because of coronavirus cases. The hope is that despite the inevitable obstacles, three weekends from now the chords of “One Shining Moment” ring out, and for a short time, at least, we all think about the many positive impacts of college athletics. But make no mistake, not unlike a sports fan deciding to get on an airplane for the first time in a year, the NCAA is taking a chance.

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