March of Madness: Where Do Sports and Society Go From Here?

After day two of the tournament, March Madness is in full swing and while Friday didn’t quite deliver the same hijinks that Thursday did, the Tournament remains the dominant story heading into the weekend.

However, my attention this week has wavered. Within the last seven days alone, Chris Borland’s early retirement highlighted the football’s spotty record when it comes to brain damage and concussions. John Oliver piggybacked Selection Sunday to join the long line of folks who put the NCAA and the concept of amateurism to the torch. And FIFA, not wanting to be left out, announced that they are moving the 2022 World Cup from summer to winter to beat the heat in Qatar. Quick reminder: an estimated 4,000 of the 1.4 million migrant workers will lose their lives building the stadiums for that event.

Sports as a whole seems to be in need of an Olivia Pope, because they are moving from scandal to scandal at an alarming rate.

Sports fans and media seem to have settled into a cadence where large events happen (like the Olympics or March Madness), articles and videos are churned out that expose the seedy underbelly, followed by quiet outrage from the collective, but as soon as the event begins, the concerns float away.

I admit that I do this too. I think it’s ridiculous that the NCAA can pull in over a billion dollars in ad revenue during the course of the tournament, but not pay a damn nickel to the athletes on whose labor they are profiting. But there I was, pounding my desk as UCLA eked out a not-loss (hard to call it a win) at the buzzer against SMU. My eyes were glued to the screen as R.J. Hunter knocked his father right out of his rolling chair with a deep three to upset Baylor. Just like I watched the Super Bowl in February, the Olympics last winter, and the World Cup last summer.

My own hypocrisy does make me wonder where my own line in the sand sits. And not just for me – what is the tipping point for a sports-addicted public to turn on the games they love?

Society has recoiled from sport at points in the past. Take the case of football. At the turn of the 20th century, football was a favorite of fans but as the death toll mounted (18 reported football deaths in 1904 when the game was played on a much smaller scale) calls for the banishment of football grew louder. It took presidential intervention and several attempts to modernize some of the rules to keep the sport alive.

Fast forward to today however and the pendulum seems to have swung back the other way. Though we know more than ever about the dangers of football and the incredible mental and physical toll it can have on those who play it, it has frankly never been more popular. The last Super Bowl was the highest rated of all-time. And though Borland (among others) have opted for early retirement this off-season, it feels more like cutting the head off of a hydra than real progress. One steps away, two rush in to take his place.

Big money and sports are now irreversibly intertwined; there’s no denying it, the lines between the games we love to watch and business have dissolved to the point where “it’s a business” coming from the mouth of an athlete has become a go-to cliche. The bottom line in today’s sports world is the bottom line; until enough issues pile up to tip the scales and financially impact the leagues, change won’t happen.

Which is why taking the time to report and consider these issues is so crucial. I remain optimistic that things can improve, can become less corrupt, safer for athletes, and better for fans. Because ultimately sports are entertainment and if the cost becomes too great to bear, I’d prefer to avoid learning how to knit.

Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

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