Each year Inside Higher Ed publishes its own brackets ranking teams by academic performance, to call attention to how many participant schools are failing to graduate its players with regularity. Results are often embarrassing for numerous schools (but not North Carolina, which “won” the bracket in 2009 and this year was picked to lose to Princeton in the Elite Eight).
The tenuous connection between big-time college sports and the amateur ideal, the morally questionable way many institutions treat their student-athletes, and the question of who gets to benefit from the dollars that flow into the NCAA coffers each spring all are fair game for critical discussion.
As it happens, I am teaching a class this semester at the University of Richmond on “Sports, Leadership, and Justice,” and not entirely coincidentally, this week’s classes will focus on the ethics of college sports. The class is reading a book on the history and future of efforts to reform college athletics in a pro-athlete direction, “Counterfeit Amateurs,” by former Notre Dame football player Allen Sack, as well as a book chapter from philosopher Robert Simon’s “Fair Play” and two short magazine articles.
In my view there are powerful reasons to favor substantial changes to the structure of college sports. But it’s also worth remembering what is valuable about college sports as an institution. Just about every year, beyond the hype and endless commercials and endless hyping of CBS’s upcoming shows, the athletes in the NCAA Tournament manage to provide that reminder through compelling, composed and courageous performances with their careers on the line and a nation watching.
This year of course has been no exception. Speaking personally, following this tournament has been an event unlike any other (CBS’s influence on my prose duly acknowledged). The school in closest geographic proximity to my residence, Virginia Commonwealth University, is in the Sweet 16 for the first time in its history, having flat out embarrassed three straight schools from power conferences while redeeming the credibility of the tournament selection committee. The school that employs me, the University of Richmond, is also in the Sweet 16 (its first appearance since 1988), and it gives me great pleasure to see Spider coaches that are my teammates and sometime adversaries in intramural and lunchtime ball achieving well-earned success and a dose of national recognition.
Last but not least, the University of North Carolina is, for the 22nd time in the last 31 years, in the Sweet 16 as well, after a dramatic 86-83 victory over the University of Washington (yet another institution that I have spent a lot time around, while my wife attended graduate school there). Because Carolina has been there so many times before, it is natural that those schools in the final 16 who haven’t made it this far in a generation, if ever, will get a disproportionate share of media attention this week.
But those who follow the Tar Heels closely know and will appreciate what an outstanding accomplishment this is for this particular team, and those who appreciate basketball should recognize that the Carolina-Washington game was one of the best played games in the tournament so far.
A loss for the Tar Heels -- and it easily could have happened -- would have felt particularly miserable because the team did so many good things Sunday against an excellent opponent. In particular, one would feel for Kendall Marshall if his missed foul shot late had been allowed to overshadow a truly brilliant performance—14 assists, 13 points scored at vital times, rebounding well from early turnover problems. Likewise, watching the March version of Harrison Barnes is a true pleasure and privilege. On Sunday he did it on the offensive end with critical baskets throughout the game, but what I’ll remember most are his three crucial steals in the latter minutes of the game that helped Carolina seize the advantage for good.
Then there is the curious case of John Henson. By my count, Henson had three potentially serious mental errors in the last 30 seconds of the game: losing track defensively of Scott Suggs, whose three cut the lead to one with 17 seconds to play; inexplicably failing to catch (or let go) the desperation heave, giving Washington one last chance; then committing what looked like a goaltend on the final shot at the horn -- a moot play since Thomas’s shot was a two. (By my count the referees also had two errors at the end: a missed call on a rebound that went the Huskies’ way with seven seconds to go, and failing to stop the clock a little earlier when Henson fumbled it out of bounds).
But in between all that, Henson also made the play of the game, the play that may have saved Carolina’s season, by deflecting and then stealing the in-bounds pass with seven seconds to go, giving Dexter Strickland the chance to push the lead to a much safer three points. Henson has made just that play all season, and his length — you have to watch a game courtside to appreciate just how high he gets up above the basket — is something most teams just aren’t used to accounting for.
Henson’s length and timing produced the crucial play in a truly great game. The oddness of the ending (though not that odd by this year’s tournament standard) should not detract from the quality of the game. Both teams ran their offense well, hit shots (a combined 45 percent from two and 52 percent from three), fought back when behind, and battled for everything. They pushed one another to a higher level of performance.
That’s what college sports do at their best. They do not just provide drama and emotion and a chance to bond with your family or bond with strangers. They provide a public display of excellence, within a competitive framework. As Robert Simon argues persuasively, the best moral justification for vigorous athletic competition is when we conceive competition not as a zero-sum game in which one opponent tries to destroy another, but a mutual agreement by competitors to abide by a shared set of rules and make an honest attempt to play the game as it should be played, and to play it as well as possible.
The competitors provide challenges to one another, challenges each side must strive to meet. Each new challenge is an opportunity for the players individually and collectively to display and express their skill, ability, and competitive character. And while there are wins and losses attached to the scoreboard, the well-played competition takes place within a framework of mutual respect and even appreciation for the opponent.
Of the many things I liked about Sunday’s game, perhaps what I appreciate most are Roy Williams’s comments about Washington and its coach Lorenzo Romar in his postgame statement. Williams praised Romar as a coach he both respects and likes, and praised effusively Washington’s team and the effort they put forth. Ole Roy was not just being polite. The praise he offered for the Huskies was simply the flip side of the pride he justly felt about the Tar Heels’ own performance in responding to Washington’s challenge.
Carolina played some excellent basketball Sunday, especially in the stretch run after trailing by five points with under 8 minutes to go. If they had not, Washington would have won, and deservedly so. Even as it was, it was a close shave.
Nonetheless, the Tar Heels go on, and face an extremely difficult challenge this weekend in Newark, starting -- but they hope not finishing -- with Marquette. Whether the Tar Heels can meet that challenge, no one knows, just as no one yet knows just what level of basketball excellence this young team is capable of reaching this year.
It will be fun — and maybe even inspiring — to find out.
Thad has returned to Inside Carolina in 2011 as a regular columnist. He is the author of "More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many" (now available to be read for free online here: More Than a Game - ONLINE). A Chapel Hill native, he operated the manual scoreboard formerly located at the end of the UNC bench between the 1982-83 and 1987-88 seasons in Carmichael and the Smith Center. Thad wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and UNCbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. He's an associate professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond.