When Is March Madness Filled With Too Much Madness?

Picture this hypothetical scenario: the Iowa State Cyclones, fresh off a surprising season in the competitive Big 12, and playing their first NCAA tournament game in seven years, will have to play without their best player, first-year transfer Royce White, after White has a meltdown on the team charter flight to Albuquerque.

ISU loses to the upstart Montana Grizzlies, causing millions of NCAA tournament pool brackets to collapse under the weight.  White and his family receive death threats and the social media world is peppered with claims of how his selfishness and erratic behavior cost himself, his team, and millions of college basketball fans a chance at glory.

Meanwhile, most of those bloggers, media heads, and “fans” didn’t bother to find out the cause of White’s meltdown, that he’s been dealing with an anxiety disorder for the better part of a decade, that he’s terrified of flying, and that the pressure of the big stage just became too much for the 6-8 270 pound behemoth who’s still not old enough to buy a drink at the bar.

Heaven forbid such an event actually happening to the young man, but it’s not without precedent.  Barrett Robins, the former Pro Bowl lineman for the Oakland Raiders, went AWOL the night before his team lost Super Bowl XXXVI.  Since then, Robbins has been diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, but not before being labeled as a self-centered wild child who put himself before his team to the detriment of his championship-hopeful team and millions of NFL fans.

Robbins was a 29-year-old man making millions of dollars and might have deserved some criticism for not seeking out help for his disorder when warning signs appeared prior to his meltdown.  But would White be spared the public vitriol given his youth, amateur status, and his honesty and responsibility in dealing with his anxiety?

One can only hope.  But the fact that such a question is even viable should give sports fans everywhere pause.  White is not a popular name in Minneapolis, although he grew up there and was named Mr. Basketball as Minnesota’s top high school basketball player in 2009.  He committed to play at the University of Minnesota the following year but left the team after legal troubles caused him to miss his first year of competition.

Not once in that yearlong melodrama did the media report his bout with anxiety, which very likely contributed to his off-court troubles.  He certainly was not given the benefit of the doubt and was labeled as “selfish, narcissistic, and mercurial” according to Eamonn Brennan on Espn.com.

Which would be a little more understandable if we were analyzing a politician or a business professional, but an 18-year-old college freshman?  How many 18-year-olds do you know that aren’t selfish, narcissistic, and/or mercurial?  And how many of them have the added challenge of an anxiety disorder?

According to Bloomberg.com’s Erik Matuszewski, bets totaling an estimated $12 billion will be riding on this year’s NCAA Men’s basketball tournament, which shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone paying attention to the American sports culture.  March Madness is very probably the best, most popular, and most exciting championship experience in sports today, from the arenas to the televisions to the office pools.

Oh yeah, those office pools.  The Internet has only multiplied their popularity, nothing is slowing them down, not the NBA draining the college ranks of most of its top-tier talent, and definitely not the IRS.  All this means that virtually every American, their significant other (or both) will be hanging on every high-pressure decision 18-year-old college freshmen in hightops make.

Is this too much to ask?  Of course it’s too much to ask.  But how do you stop a roaring tidal wave of revenue after it’s gained years (and tens of billions of dollars) of momentum?  Answer: you don’t.

As long as March Madness is the hottest ticket—or more importantly, television program—in town, tremendous pressure will be placed on the shoulders of college kids who for the most part are just playing the game they love.  And, to be perfectly frank, paying them a few thousand dollars for their efforts isn’t going to change anything.

So what can be done?  There’s probably an argument to be made that the media is the biggest culprit here.  After all, it’s the television ratings that drive the revenues, not to mention the countless internet sites covering the events, offering contests, and otherwise feeding (and feeding off of) the beast.  But there’s probably no hope to reign it all in, even if one wanted to.

And the NCAA has received plenty of criticism (although perhaps not enough) for exploiting its own student athletes and has not shown much willingness (or a even an ability) to change.  The players are still exploited, recruiting and benefits violations are still widespread, and the whole ugly mess will again be swept under the rug for those magical three weeks of pure basketball bliss.

So what can be done?  Subsidiarity would say that it starts with the colleges and universities themselves.  The two most powerful individuals in a collegiate basketball program are the coach and the person who hired—and can fire—him, most likely the Athletic Director.

It is both the coach and the AD’s job to set their team up for success, and it’s their job to define the success of the team as something that benefits the good of the individual players.  That success may lead to wins, it may even lead to a championship.  But the success of a collegiate sports team, if it is indeed to be an extension of an educational institution, must be defined by how beneficial such a team is to the human beings that comprise it, not by wins and losses and definitely not on revenue.

And ultimately, the responsibility rests on the collegiate institution, and specifically on its leaders, to define success in this way.  Imagine if at his season-ending news conference, a coach reflected on the growth he saw in his players, the lessons they learned, and the victories they achieved that may or may not have had to do with the final score.

My guess is that college basketball wouldn’t be any less fun to watch, March would be no less exciting, and all the while we would be reminding these athletes, in the words of the great John Wooden, “What you are as a person is far more important than what you are as a basketball player.”