Posted by: Mike Cornelius | April 8, 2021

The Madness Is Done, But The NCAA’s Problems Remain

In San Antonio and Indianapolis, champions have been crowned.  On Sunday night it was the Stanford women, pre-tournament favorites.  Twenty-four hours later it was the Baylor men, in what was on paper at least a mild upset, though it hardly seemed that way given how they and their Gonzaga counterparts performed on the Lucas Oil Stadium court.  Now the confetti has flown and the television coverage of this year’s NCAA Division I basketball tournaments has concluded, as always, with CBS’s montage of men’s tournament highlights accompanied by David Barrett’s “One Shining Moment.”  Both tournaments produced stories worth telling, none greater than the simple fact that both events made it from the opening jump ball of the first game to the final celebration, albeit with one COVID-19 walkover in the men’s tourney, when multiple positive tests forced Virginia Commonwealth to forfeit its first-round game against Oregon. 

There was the perseverance of the Stanford Cardinal players, fighting their way through a season in which pandemic restrictions forced them to start with practice sessions in Las Vegas, spend long periods living in hotels, and play “home” games in Santa Cruz, a time consuming forty-five-mile drive over local roads from their campus.  There was the overall high level of play at the five women’s tourney venues along the San Antonio to Austin corridor, a powerful reminder that women’s college basketball no longer begins and ends in Storrs, Connecticut.  Geno Auriemma’s UConn Huskies did feature prominently in arguably the best back-to-back games for television fans in either tournament.  Two weekends ago the Sweet Sixteen round featured the sport’s two freshmen phenoms, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlan Clark, going head to head in a showcase of the future.  Right after the Huskies pulled away late to win 92-72, powered as much by Bueckers’ supporting cast as by the star herself, #2 Baylor and #6 Michigan battled through four quarters and beyond.  The Wolverines never led in regulation, but knotted the score late to force overtime, and in the end came within one final heave of pulling off the upset.  No wonder that the women’s tournament, from the Sweet Sixteen on through to Sunday night’s championship tilt, saw its highest TV ratings in years.   

On the men’s side there was UCLA, in a bygone era the dominant force in the game, cast in the unlikely role of Cinderella.  The Bruins, a #11 seed that had to win one of the four play-in games to make it into the tournament’s bracket, advanced all the way the Final Four, defeating second-seeded Alabama and Michigan, the East’s top seed, along the way.  In its semifinal matchup against heavily-favored Gonzaga, UCLA proved it belong, matching the Zags shot for shot in a game that had nineteen lead changes and saw the score tied fifteen times.  For the third time in six games the Bruins played overtime, and even that looked like it wouldn’t be enough.  Tied at 90, the game appeared headed to a second extra period when Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs launched a Hail Mary from near half court as the clock went to zero.  The shot caromed off the backboard and through the net for a 93-90 win that kept the Zags’ hopes for a perfect season alive.

That dream was dashed quickly in the championship contest, where the final story of this year’s tournaments was Baylor’s dominance.  Seventy-three years after last playing in the title game, the Bears led 9-0 after two-and-a-half minutes.  The first half had not reached its midway point when the Baylor lead stretched to 15, the largest deficit Gonzaga had faced all season.  The Zags – the official nickname is Bulldogs, but it’s entirely possible that an undergraduate could complete four years of study on the Spokane campus having only heard the team referred to by the shorthand reference – were trying to become the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1976.  A high-powered offense was Gonzaga’s calling card, evidenced by its tournament average margin of victory of just under 20 points, even with the close call against UCLA.  But Baylor’s defense was stifling, and as the Bears rained three-pointers at their end of the court, it was soon obvious that the Hoosiers place in the record books was safe for another year.  After the Bears’ opening nine-point outburst, Gonzaga was never closer than eight on the way to the 86-70 final score. 

NCAA president Mark Emmert would no doubt dearly love for those tales to remain the focus as this season’s tournaments pass into memory.  But even as the confetti was being swept up in Texas and Indiana, the words of a different song than Barrett’s annual contribution to CBS’s March Madness coverage kept coming to mind.

“The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day.  They’ve burst your pretty balloon and taken the moon away.”

Even while the tournaments were going on, even as the focus should have been on final scores and busted brackets, the NCAA’s ineptitude instead put the spotlight on the organization’s institutional misogyny.  Oregon’s Sedona Prince posted a video on Tik Tok showing the laughably pathetic weight training equipment in San Antonio – a single small rack of dumbbells next to a pile of yoga mats – compared to the expansive setup for the men in Indianapolis.  Prince’s video quickly garnered more than 5 million views, and as it did so the media uncovered similarly vast differences in everything from catered food to virus testing protocols.  The Association’s talking heads mumbled and fumbled before efforts were finally made to correct the disparities.  But the indelible impression left by the initial reaction was that but for a player with a smartphone, the NCAA would have been perfectly fine with the caste system embodied in the original arrangements.  As Prince said at the end of her video, “if you aren’t upset about this problem, then you are a part of it.”

“The party’s over, the candles flicker and dim.  The party’s over, it’s all over, my friend.”

With the tournaments concluded and the nets cut down, issues that have dogged the NCAA for years will now once again be front and center.  Foremost among those is the legitimacy of the business model for big-time college sports, in which schools reap vast fortunes, especially in football and basketball, while the players fans pay to see are restricted from either sharing the wealth or making their own by NCAA rules.  The realities of the pandemic, during which seasons were cancelled or games played in empty stadiums and arenas, left many athletic departments reeling financially.  But as vaccinations increase and crowds start to return to sports, state legislatures, Congress, and even the Supreme Court appear ready to act if the NCAA and its member schools will not.  For Emmert and the NCAA, there’s precious little time left to seize one shining moment, before the party is thoroughly and finally over.

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