For How Long Can I Sustain March Madness?

March Madness is here, but is it sustainable?   Yes, until that keg runs dry.  As you fill out your brackets, consider some basic thoughts on governance, social responsibility and environmental impact (is there an environmentally sound way to dispose of a giant foam index finger?) in men's NCAA Division 1 college basketball.  Each program is a rarified business model that exists to elevate a  handful of players, and their school, to a championship.  For today's column, we accept college hoops on its own terms, leaving the question of whether big time sport has any place in college for another day, probably a day following a major NCAA football scandal.

Governance is simple. The coach is king in  men's college hoops, more than king - empire, dictator for life.  The coach makes more than the president of his university and, if he wins,  he has more job security.  Coaches aren't fired for low graduation rates or minor peccadilloes.  It takes sustained or serious personal misconduct to get a winning coach fired, or an NCAA rules violation so serious that the university must jettison the coach to save the school itself from a disastrous penalty.  Nobody really governs the coach, except the won-loss record. 

There is transparency in some areas.  The won-loss record is the ultimate in transparency.  Graduation rates, team GPAs and athletic budgets, especially at public schools, are generally available, but they don't matter much except in deciding how quickly to fire a losing coach.  No one seems to make a systematic, consistent effort to quantify the effects of a winning hoops program: more school spirit; better credentialed applicants for slots in the freshman class; higher alumni donations; more binge drinking (or is that a sub-category of school spirit)? and report them.  My guess is this type of report would look great for the handful of schools that win very consistently.  Even for schools that do moderately well on the court, basketball would look like a bargain compared to football.  For the rest? Somehow even our most nearly bankrupt states seem willing to fund princely salaries for men's basketball (and football) coaches at state schools in the hope they can get a winning program started.  In sum, to the extent there is transparency, it just doesn't seem to make any difference to anyone, so long as Coach wins.

How about  employee relations?  Student athletes are well housed, well fed and offered a “free” education, which  they earn with work that is more than a full time job during the basketball season and a demanding job all year round.  Graduation rates are generally pretty good, compared to the student body as a whole, although the numbers for African-Americans are often lower.  The brightest stars leave for the pros after a year or two and take away value in basketball training and reputation, whatever they get from the classroom or the college experience.  The best coaches make sure the rest of the players have a real shot at earning a degree, with their recruiting practices and academic support for the players.  Even some of the coaches that can't or don't put much emphasis on “student” when recruiting will use the boosters to make sure everyone has a job when they leave the program on good terms.  The worst coaches will recruit a non-student, find a way (think tutors for basket weaving 101) to keep him eligible for a few years and then  express deepest regret when he loses academic eligibility and drops out. 

Then there's injuries.  The NCAA requires insurance coverage, but who buys the coverage, school or the player's family, how comprehensive is it and how much will the school help when the full extent of the injury is not covered?  The answers are all over the lot.  There's actually a $218 million fund, set up by the NCAA two years ago in settlement of a class action suit by scholarship basketball and football players, for living expenses, including medical costs, not adequately covered by scholarships. 

Remember the coaches are labor too.  The graduate assistant makes nothing and works like a dog, because he loves it and someday he might be Coach.  The treatment of assistants varies based on school and seniority, some make a great living, all work incredibly long hours.  For most there is no off-season, just recruiting season.  Coaching is not a family friendly job and there's a line of wannabe coaches a mile long waiting to grab the spot of any complainer.  Livin the dream!

How does the team effect its surroundings, the university community, the town, the region, other stakeholders?  From a focused environmental standpoint, the games generate a lot of drinking, junk food eating and waste.   Team travel,  fan travel and recruiting travel are carbon gobblers.  That's right locafans (think locavores),  rejoice that  Boston College didn't make the tournament – every game is a trek for someone when a Boston team plays in the ACC.  More broadly, a winning program, or a great season by an underdog, can fire up a whole region with some real joy.

So, with sustainability foremost in our thoughts, let's turn to our brackets.  Coach K is a benign dictator who can recruit talented scholars to Duke, but give character points to Marquette, a private college from Milwaukee on a tight budget that might have snuck in off the bubble with a streak of overtime wins – and posted a 100% graduation rate last year.  If you really want to go ESG, you could have picked MIT – a program where student, not coach, is king.  Tech made it to the Division 3 NCAA tournament, but lost in OT in the first round.

Photo Credit: Adobemac