“But nowadays everywhere we turn in America God seems to be under attack, to be banished from American life... God is being banned in public and private, in big and small matters…”
This passage is excerpted this from the pages of Biblia.com, a website devoted to keeping track of those people and institutions in our society that have made it their business to enter into a congenital and malevolent state of war on God and religion. And though I find their politics to be insensible, I confess that the keepers of this site have identified a very real phenomenon — for I myself am participant in this ongoing state of belligerence towards any and all higher powers. In return, God has declared war on me. I know this because not twenty-four hours before I was scheduled to depart for Miami this past Friday in order to attend the wedding of two dear friends, the temperature was 70 degrees. The next day I sat in La Guardia for seven hours as a preposterously unrelenting ice storm grounded flights up and down the Eastern seaboard, extending well past the necessary time of my arrival. Very well. So be it. I am just one small man and He the ruler of the elements and firmament, and so perhaps I have miscalculated. Total war with the Infinite Maker is always a fraught and tricky matter, and I never expected it to go smoothly.
On the plus side, it’s 12:45 in the afternoon and I find myself at the Terminal D bar witnessing the University of Virginia versus Albany in the first round of that licentious mid-March binge that is the annual NCAA tournament. The bar, which I believe is called “The Tarmac”, serves Sam Adams and hot franks, and apparently nothing else. This is no one’s idea of an optimal arrangement, besides perhaps the bartender, whose audience is captive, huge and in deep need of sedation.
Surrounding me is a diverse group of strangers, each of them gripped in the same horror show predicament as I. The curious thing was the way each appears strangely mollified by the two largely unfamiliar teams competing before them. It is hard to imagine any group of antagonized strangers so thoroughly anesthetized by an Arena Football game or Nike Tour event on the Golf Channel, although they level of familiarity with the participants could scarcely have been much greater. Twenty-five years ago some of the names involved in the North Carolina-Georgetown NCAA final were Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, David Wingate and Eric “Sleepy” Floyd. The next year Ewing, Wingate and Reggie Williams would compete against Hakeem Olajuwaun and Clyde Drexler in the finals and redeem their defeat from the previous year. All of these men went on to lengthy NBA careers and some of became legendary Hall of Famers. For decades the tournament served a gatekeeper function, ushering canonical figures like Kareem, Bird and Magic Johnson into their initial stages of household name consciousness. The enjoyment in watching these games derived as much from what they portended for the future as the results themselves. It was a spectacular privilege to witness the blossoming of these neophyte titans, and one which further provided the sort of narrative thread generating a true desire to actually watch pro basketball, rather than just endure it.
Of course none of this is remotely in evidence any longer. The best pro prospects generally only make one-year cameos in college, and their teams are accordingly never very good, since the stars don’t stick around long enough for them to gel into the sort of formidable dynasties like John Wooden‘s UCLA Bruins or even mini-dynasties like Jerry Tarkanian‘s reprehensible but fun UNLV teams of the 1980s. In terms of sheer quality of play and star power it is difficult to think of any sport so thoroughly diminished over the past two decades. The sports world is always rife with comedic hypocrisy, but collegiate sports always seems willing to up the ante on sheer mercenary abuse of power disguised by incredulous claims of principle. That the NCAA has managed to run off a plurality of its great players by persisting in not including them in the zany windfall that the sort of tournament has become (there current television contract with CBS is for six billion dollars over eleven years) seems strangely shortsighted. Would the tournament be what it was today if Bill Walton or Ewing had stayed only one year and then bolted for the pros? The argument that college athletes are not commodities deserving of at least some kind of paying wage has now evolved from quaint and idealistic to egregiously selfish. No person with anything like their wits about them could conceivably suggest at this point that it is fair for the players themselves to be frozen out of this endless molten ocean of lucre. Not to diminish the tremendous life-force advantages conferred upon any individual receiving a free education from the University of Louisville, but something tells me your average NBA first-round pick will survive just as well putting it off a few years, even if they never play a minute in the pros.
And yet, despite it all, the tournament remains as popular as ever. Back at the airport bar, I think I know why: even if we have no idea who any of the players are, the entire event is so grossly excessive in a uniquely American way that it is somehow irresistible. The 48-game binge that marks the opening weekend is the Shoney’s breakfast bar of the sports season. There is absolute no way we need to be going back for a fifth helping of Pittsburg versus Wright State, and yet here we are, cramming more and more onto our plate. Gambling is also a factor. The FBI estimates that 2.5 billion dollars is wagered each year on the NCAA tournament, roughly the size of my pending alimony. It is not so much fun as mandatory to fill out brackets in an office pool each year. Failure to do so can lead to social sanction, and perhaps even firing. In keeping with the generally unhinged aura, it is common for a single individual to fill out multiple brackets with different results, a process rather less scientific than choosing power ball tickets via Numerology.
It all strikes me as fairly unhealthy, and certainly an entirely Godless enterprise, co-mingling as it does a toxic cavalcade of greed, sloth and inveterate gambling, and Dick Vitale. The Super Bowl is evil in this way too — but in a much more contained, controlled fashion. It’s over fast enough to avoid any sort of long-term national carnage, the sort of shameful one-night bender that can be explained away as the result of stress build up or fleeting poor judgment. The Super Bowl is like Las Vegas in that way, but the NCAA Tournament is like Atlantic City: the sort of place you find yourself lost for three weeks without sufficient explanation, nor any real idea how to get back. If the Super Bowl is often said to be the ultimate non-denominational American holiday, March Madness feels more like its quintessence: chaotic and indulgent in the extreme, accumulating wealth even as it devolves, and feeling gradually less relevant, even as we resignedly give ourselves over in the airport bar.