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That’s The Way The Matzah Crumbles

Well that was fun.

As you know, Wisconsin made it to the Final Four last year and lost against Kentucky, but this year, they managed to surpass that, defying all the odds (well, the odds of making it to the championship in general being rather slim, when you consider how many teams are in Division I basketball; they were a #1 seed this year) and it was really exciting.

Not so exciting was flying back to Madison from Baltimore and landing roughly at the time the championship was ending.

I changed planes in Minneapolis, and as soon as I arrive and make it to my terminal, the TVs are all tuned to the game. Since Duke is the opponent, and they’re based far, far away in North Carolina, the bulk of the terminal are Badger fans. They’re leading at the half, and then we have to board the plane, for what will be the weirdest flight ever.

First of all, it’s a flight from Minneapolis to Madison, which is pretty ludicrous in and of itself, since they’re only 3-4 hours apart by road, and it’s a tiny plane. Second, everyone on the plane is either wearing Badger red and glued to their smartphone/laptop/iPad or munching on matzah, or both, like the mother/daughter pair across the aisle from me. When the cabin crew announces the “turn off all electronic devices,” a few people manage to keep watching the game for a few minutes, until the captain says over the intercom:

“Listen, you all need to turn off your electronic devices. I know it’s the game, but it’s regulation. We’ll try to have you on the ground as soon as possible, but until then, just enjoy your flight. We will not be offering a complimentary beverage service, but

Mind. Blown.

An in-flight score service, who knew.

The excitement builds as we take off and sail over the two states. True to their word, the flight attendants keep us updated on the score, and it’s close to an even score as we land in Madison, and the cabin goes dark in preparation.

We land.

The lights come up, the phones go on, and the first thing I see it a text from my dad:

“Wisconsin loses.”

Oh gosh.

I don’t know what this means.

A big part of me is disappointed, but just as much of me is curious as to what will happen, if it’ll be a danger zone, and part of me is relieved, because all the crazies will be leaving Madison just as I’m attempting to get a ride in. Fortunately, a lady a few rows behind me asks me where I live, and turns out we’re a block from each other, so she called a cab for us before we even left Madison, which was super nice of her. We end up sharing with another guy, a stats professor, and get home rather quickly.

The rest of the night is quiet at least.

And again, that was fun.

On Wisconsin, I guess…?

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March Madness

It’s that time of year again.

That time when people go absolutely bonkers over a bunch of lines on a piece of paper that they’ll forget about once April comes.

Yep, March Madness.

I was never a huge college basketball fan growing up, and that didn’t change once I got into college. I mean, it’s one of those things that I can understand other people enjoying, but I just don’t see much in it. And the obsession with brackets; call me old-fashioned, but when I think of brackets, the first thing that comes to mind is dental surgery. It’s all anyone talks about this time of year, and the chances of being even remotely close are quite slim, even if you buy a hundred brackets from ESPN.com.

And of course, one of the perennial hot-button issues regarding college athletic programs waits until this time of year to rear its ugly head.

You guessed it, I’m talking about salaries for college basketball players.

John Oliver did a piece on it last week, and while I agree with his viewpoints, coming from an American college background and seeing the direct effects of the economy on the situation at large, I think that something substantial needs to happen to finally put this problem to bed.

Before we start talking about salaries for college athletes, let’s look at who really benefits from NCAA and March Madness. First, a small circle of executives. Second, a slightly larger circle of merchandisers. Third, a slightly larger circle of coaches of winning teams. Fourth, a slightly larger circle of coaches of lesser teams. And if there’s any money left over, the schools.

Does this seem like a pyramid scheme to you? Because that is what it feels like to me. Honestly. Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus said it best in their phenomenal book, Higher Education? How Colleges are Wasting our Money and Failing our Kids – And What We Can Do About It (2010): however many teams there are, there can only be one winner. Everyone else is a loser, in more ways than one. Once a team is out, the buck stops there; merchandise is tossed into the furnace, the advertising offers disappear, and the coaches’ checks are written and distributed. Now, we’re not only hurting ourselves, but we’re hurting underpaid apparel factory workers in China who have to scrap their entire stock of Purdue University Final Four sweatshirts, t-shirts, and hoodies when the Boilermakers get knocked out in an Elite Eight upset. For the coaches, life isn’t so bad; they get to peace out with a sweet check and take a cruise to the Bahamas or whatever basketball coaches do the rest of the year. But the players themselves do struggle, and some of them sustain injuries that not only end their careers, but relieve them of their scholarships and possibly leave them with lifelong conditions.

I could really go on and on and on about this, but I guess what I’m getting at can be summed up in a few points:

1. Coaches’ salaries need to be cut. I’m probably preaching to the choir, but did you know that in the majority of states, the highest-paid private employee is a university coach? That’s pretty disheartening for someone whose work is as seasonal as a Macy’s holiday gift-wrapper. Or if not their salaries, then ban them from allowing to benefit from corporate branding and advertising.

2. People just need to calm down about all this. If the media didn’t make such a fuss over March Madness, people would calm down considerably. The closest sporting event that I can think of that is on this scale while remaining amateur is the Summer Olympics, which happens only every four years. Give colleges a break; they’re under enough pressure from people like Scott Walker as it is.

And finally, the million-dollar question: should college athletes get paid?

My opinion is…it depends. I don’t think that college athletes should get a salary just for being on the team. I do think, however, that they should be allowed to benefit in a similar fashion to their coaches, and be allowed access to the same resources and endorsements from companies like Coca-Cola, Wendy’s, Nike, and all the rest, based on their merit, talent, and sportsmanship. I think that regardless of skill level or playing time, they all deserve to have health insurance covered by their university, regardless of how light or severe the injury; without them, there would be no team and no income for anyone, at all, period. (I mean, come on. Could you imagine people paying just to watch a bunch of older white men to stand around in headsets looking constipated?) I don’t think that they should be penalized for being recognized for their skills and talents; it’s what got them there in the first place. And finally, I think that the NCAA needs to crack down on the intensity of their program, both on and off the court. Coaches should be monitored more carefully to see that they are not over-exerting their players in practice/training to the point of exhaustion or physical/mental illness, and in games, rough play should be taken more seriously; after all, if you’re going to call them amateurs, don’t expect them to play like pros. Probably less than five percent of them will ascend to that level anyway, and though it’s nice to dream, I would imagine that most college athletes want to do something else with their lives than turn pro, even if it’s something as simple as living in a comfortable home, or getting married and having children, or having a less dangerous, better-paying job.

As for me, I’ll be casually following Wisconsin, but I’m not getting my hopes up.

Oh, who am I kidding, they’re a #1 seed and up against Coastal Carolina, so beat ’em, Badgers.