When I was in college, I dated a woman who was a fierce pro-choice advocate. Now, I’m pro-choice myself, but she was (understandably) far more active in the movement than I was. She knew everything about it, she knew every angle, she knew who her allies were and who the villains were. And she organized her entire life around it.
One hungover day — it was college, after all — I offered to go grab some greasy cheeseburgers from Wendy’s. (I honestly think what I miss most about college is the brief, dumb illusion that one could eat whatever one wanted.) She reacted with shock and horror. “Oh, God, no: I’m not giving that pig Dave Thomas a dime.”
As it turned out, the late Dave Thomas was, back in the nineties, a prominent pro-life advocate. She was so repulsed by this stance that she would never eat at a Wendy’s. (We had Burger King instead, in case you thought her reticence had anything to do with the quality of the food.) I went along with her, because I agree with her on the issue, I was too hung over to argue and she was very pretty. But the more and more I thought about it, it seemed to me a pointless gesture, for two reasons, one practical in a macro sense, one practical in a micro sense.
The macro: Boycotting a corporation because you disagree with a stance doesn’t make any difference. Now, the publicity that involves a large-scale organized boycott can force a corporation to react to the uproar, if it gets loud enough. But that’s not economics; that’s public relations. My girlfriend was taking a quiet, personal stance, and while that’s admirable, it’s also by definition ineffective. Wendy’s did not need her five bucks and has, in fact, thrived for two decades since without it.
But the micro matters more: It’s a stance that’s impossible, as a human being, to remain a consistent adherent of. That’s to say: If I decide that I am never going to eat at a restaurant that are run by people whose political philosophies don’t jive precisely with mine… I am going to fucking starve.
College athletics are corrupt. This argument is irrefutable. I’ve written about this, I’ve read (and reviewed) Indentured, and I’ve actively encouraged star college athletes to leave school and protect their future earning power. I was there in Arlington when Shabazz Napier spoke about going to bed hungry while making millions for a bunch of old white men in mahogany offices while CBS sells sports cars in a Jerry Jones diamond-encrusted white-collar whorehouse. I live in a college town, and I see the harvest of these young athletes every day, for the sake of entitled boosters and manufacturers of shitty-flavored sugar water. I am a professional sportswriter with a platform to speak about these issues, and I use that platform at every opportunity.
But I’m not going to stop watching college basketball. I’m just not. I am intellectually aware of all these issues, and I know that the way they make the college basketball sausage is rotten and disgusting and that they haven’t cleaned the ovens in months, maybe years. But I’m not going to stop watching. I love it. I grew up loving it, I encourage my children to love it, and I look forward to all of us loving it together as I grow old and ultimately die. It is part of who I am. If you woke me up in the middle of the night and said, “Describe the first happy moment that comes into your mind,” it is very possible this will be my response:
I couldn’t stop loving it any more than I could stop eating.
On one hand, this, of course, makes me part of the problem. If I’m not willing to personally give up this thing I love even though I know it benefits awful people and is corrosive to the athletes we enjoy watching so much, I can’t get too high and mighty if it never changes.
But hey: I’m here right now, aren’t I? I support the cause! That doesn’t mean I have to stop living, does it? Doesn’t watching and enjoying anything — whether it’s a movie starring a felon, or a smartphone made by tiny Chinese hands, or a delicious sandwich that profits a dead bigot — make you part of the problem? This doesn’t mean that we have a moral obligation not to watch and enjoy anything. You can claim one person can make a difference, but, well, it’s not true. If every single person writing thinkpieces about college sports stopped watching, and all of their friends stopped watching… March Madness would still be a national spectacle. And not watching, frankly, takes you out of the conversation: The quickest way to get a sports fan not to listen to you is to say you don’t watch sports.
I’ve said this before, but our responsibility as media, as fans, should be not to put the moral onus on ourselves; it’s to put it on them. It’s to keep this pressure on the NCAA, the university presidents, the networks, the “corporate champions,” to keep forcing them to answer for everything they do that’s wrong, to stay on them, to force them to face up to it, to try to invoke change. I truly believe we can watch and enjoy college basketball while understanding how gross it is. The human brain contains multitudes: It can walk and chew gum at the same time.
Maybe I’m kidding myself. Maybe I’m “looking past the humanity of the players.” I’ll grant the possibility. But while sports is not separate from life, it also doesn’t run on an entirely parallel track. I can despise someone’s politics, but if they’re standing next to me wearing the same team’s hat that I’m wearing, we’re going to be best friends for a few hours. What happens on the court is simplicity; it’s off the court that brings the complication. Maybe you can’t have one without the other. But I think you can appreciate the beauty and excitement of what happens on it without ignoring what happens off it. I would even argue doing both is our obligation.
I am a senior writer for Sports On Earth, culture writer for Bloomberg Politics, film critic for The New Republic, contributing editor for New York Magazine, and the founder of Deadspin.