All day long, we make compromises. We jump through hoops designed by others — often meaningless and almost alway arbitrary — so as to achieve something that we can genuinely appreciate for ourselves.
We learn from an early age that any individual revolt against the system to which we’re born will be met with less comfort than merely going along with it, and so, excluding a few heroes, we mostly agree to play the game. We turn a blind eye to great injustices, step around challenging authoritative structures, and lead an inauthentic life for the sake of amenity and contentment.
You and I share a lot in common with the guy from The Matrix who sells out his team. We know it’s all an illusion, but we’d rather live undisturbed there than deal with the reality of our situation.
We’re frequently reminded of this by devilish misanthropes, forever eager to broach the subject of a far more disturbing trend whenever we complain of something trivial.
Lines at the airport got you down? At least you’re not in Aleppo being bombed by the Syrian army. Are you tired of the cold weather? At least your child wasn’t infected with drug-resistant tuberculosis. And so it goes.
Recently, I’ve found myself feeling similarly about the ongoing — and admittedly trivial in a grand scheme of things sort of way — NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
It’s a sporting event unlike any other. 68 teams of comparable age and varying talent compete in a massive three week tournament, in which the representatives of a single school have to win six straight games against what’s meant to be increasing levels of competition before being crowned National Champions.
Every year, observers witness a type of concentrated drama often associated, but rarely found in sports. It’s theatre with highs and lows that endorses the unexpected and drives a narrative of overcoming great obstacles to find success in the end.
However, it’s also a grotesque performance, put on by a production company that holds its players in a form of indentured servitude. Despite risking their future livelihood while earning revenue for their colleges, conferences and overseeing governing body, athletes go unpaid. Their only compensation is an education, the cost of which pales in comparison to their earnings, and remains most appealing to those coming from low-income homes, unable to afford tuition through any other means.
With the promise of a potential professional basketball contract or merely a college degree granting more opportunities than they would’ve otherwise been afforded, players agree to the exploitive terms of the arrangement because of limited options. College basketball players experience all of the drawbacks of being a professional basketball player without its primary benefit: Money.
In order to enjoy the tournament, this fact has to be put out of mind, and the presentation of the entire event does a pretty good job of assisting our willful ignorance. The games are broadcast on television, commented on by pundits and written about by sports writers as though it’s a professional endeavor for the participants. The illusion isn’t just maintained, it’s woven into spectators like an unnaturally attached wicker basket.
Only, something funny happened over the playing of the first four days of the tournament (proper). People began complaining of this treatment. More specifically, viewers and some writers didn’t seem to like CBS commentator Doug Gottlieb questioning and second guessing the young players.
Strong work all day from Doug Gottlieb on the Here’s What This Nervous Teenager Should’ve Done front.
— David Roth (@david_j_roth) March 21, 2014
Listen to Doug Gottlieb, who never made mistakes when he was in college.
— Eric Freeman (@freemaneric) March 21, 2014
While not wanting to play the role of the so-called misanthropes described at the beginning of this piece, it seems strange that this is what would upset people given the exploitive nature of the entire NCAA system. It’s a bit like focusing grievances on the small portion size of terrible tasting food.
I wonder if this, in itself, isn’t a way of making our acceptance of the illusion a bit more palatable to our consciences. If we fully realize the unfairness associated with a tournament exploiting its athletes to the degree that the NCAA does, it becomes impossible to appreciate. We don’t want to do that because, to sports fans, Kentucky upsetting Wichita State and Kansas getting knocked out by Stanford is highly enjoyable.
We do, however, want our cake, and to eat it, as well.
As much pleasure as there is to be gained by upsets and last second winners, it’s not enough to fully absolve us from compunctive feelings for our indirect participation in NCAA profiteering. And so we find symptoms to attack that allow us to fulfill our sense of moral obligation while still leaving the wonderfully intoxicating disease fully in tact, and unthreatened.
It seems a dirty bit of business, but it’s not all that different from the compromises most of us make on a daily basis. Even the idea of emphasizing the corrupt practices of a sporting body over the many worse social injustices that currently plague humanity could be seen as an attack of the symptom to the benefit of the disease.
Where does that leave us, though? Are we to wander through life reserving all expressions of dissatisfaction only for the very worst evils?
It’s simply not realistic. However, it is possible to be aware. And as a proper appreciation for the context of our complaints grants us an improved perspective, maybe there’s some comfort to be gained there, even if it becomes a little more difficult to watch basketball the same way.