March Madness, for the Public Good

Blog Post Author: Jerry Logan

Date: March 2016

March Madness, for the Public Good

The first two rounds of March Madness, the annual NCAA Division I men’s basketball postseason tournament, are in the books, and as usual there was no shortage of compelling narratives. Middle Tennessee pulled off perhaps the greatest upset in opening round history by defeating Michigan State. The Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin and their bearded star player briefly captured the sporting world’s heart when they chopped down West Virginia last Friday. And Northern Iowa stunned Texas on a half-court buzzer beating shot before being stunned themselves two nights later when Texas A&M made up a 12-point deficit in the final 35 seconds of regulation before winning in double overtime. When the madness subsided at the end of Sunday night and only 16 teams remained, however, the underdogs were all but gone and college basketball’s bluebloods had assumed center stage.

Chief among the bluebloods this year is the University of North Carolina, whom many view as the most talented team in the tournament and who, along with Kansas, are the co-favorite to win the year’s final prize. The Tarheels have a narrative of their own, though it is not as compelling as those of the Cinderella teams mentioned above. UNC faces what are likely to be severe NCAA sanctions in the coming year after revelations of academic fraud that spanned 20 years and involved around 1,500 athletes. In its own investigation of the matter, the university uncovered additional pieces of information related to the scandal. The disclosure of this information this past summer prolonged the timeline for the NCAA’s investigation, allowing this year’s athletic teams to avoid sanctions. The irony, then, is particularly strong: by reporting even more wrongdoing, the university increased its chances of winning a national championship.

As scholars have demonstrated, unethical behavior has plagued intercollegiate athletics from their inception, particularly in the commercial sports of football and men’s basketball (Thelin, 1996). The resulting critiques are centuries old, yet they have made remarkably little dent on the shape and popularity of big-time college athletics. If anything, a number of developments over the years, most notably the rise of television, have only increased the temptation to unethical behavior given the profit-making capacity of these sports (Clotfelter, 2011). While arguments for reform remain vital (Lawrence, Hendricks, & Ott, 2007; Shulman & Bowen, 2001), certain scholars also have recognized the need for a reconsideration of the benefits that athletics might represent for American universities (Clotfelter, 2011; Thelin & Wisemann, 1989; Toma, 2003). If intercollegiate athletics are not going anywhere any time soon, they reason, we might as well figure out what they can really be worth to their institutions. Such efforts necessarily involve a thorough economic analysis, especially given the costs of maintaining Division I athletic programs, but they also demand an accounting of the benefits that are not so easily quantified.

Clotfelter (2011) highlights a number of these more fuzzy benefits, among them the unrivaled exposure that athletic success can generate for an institution as well as the sense of community that can form around these teams, especially among students and alumni. Undoubtedly, March Madness could furnish researchers with an annual stock of case studies around just these two phenomena. However, Clotfelter also notes another benefit that is far less often cited when considering the true value of big-time college athletic programs. After all the money that fans shell out in order to support their teams—whether by purchasing tickets, buying merchandise, or traveling to arenas across their country—there remains an additional value to the spectating experience. “Whether the team wins or loses,” Clotfelter asserts, “the acts of following, cheering, and hoping add up to something like happiness” (p. 199). This consumer surplus, as he refers to it, rarely appears in the ledger when athletic programs are under scrutiny, yet particularly for public institutions, it “would seem to be a legitimate part of the benefit a state university provides to its citizens” (Clotfelter, 2011, p. 93). All of the institutions mentioned at the beginning of this post are public universities. And each time the camera scans the crowd during their games, Clotfelter’s notion of consumer surplus screams from the faces of fans decked head to toe in their team’s colors.

There is one other public university from the tournament’s opening weekend that is worth mentioning. The University of Hawaii, a 13-seed, played the fourth-seeded Golden Bears from Cal Berkeley on Friday afternoon. Having taken the afternoon off from work, I settled into watch, hoping for an upset to start the day. Though not a basketball powerhouse by any means, Hawaii learned in December of severe sanctions from the NCAA for a number of violations committed under its previous coach. The sanctions will begin during the 2016-17 season, with perhaps the most notable penalty being a ban on postseason play for that year. For both the team’s seniors and juniors, this game represented their only chance to play in the Big Dance. As the game unfolded, the telecast focused on Hawaii’s coach, Eran Ganot, who had taken the job this year knowing that NCAA penalties loomed. And as is so often the case, as the clock ticked down and it became clear that the Rainbow Warriors would indeed pull off the upset, the cameras found Coach Ganot’s family. His wife was holding a small girl, who was beaming from ear to ear. I assumed she was their daughter, and I was right, though not in the way I expected. The girl was actually their niece; her biological mother—Coach Ganot’s sister-in-law—had been killed in a car accident and they had become her adoptive parents.

That little girl’s smile is, for me, the lasting image of the tournament. And it makes me think that, despite how big March Madness has become, despite how much money is involved and how many ethical dilemmas and embarrassments arise, there is still “something like happiness” that can come from watching a bunch of college kids play ball.


Clotfelter, C. T. (2011). Big-time sports in American universities. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Lawrence, J. H., Hendricks, L. A., & Ott, M. C. (2007, October 15). Faculty perceptions of intercollegiate athletics: A national study of faculty at NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision institutions. Retrieved from

Shulman, J. L., & Bowen, W. G. (2001). The game of life: College sports and educational values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Thelin, J. R. (1996). Games colleges play: Scandal and reform in intercollegiate athletics. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Thelin, J. R., & Wiseman, L. L. (1989). The old college try: Balancing academics and athletics in higher education. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4.

Toma, J. D. (2003). Football U.: Spectator sports in the life of the American university. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.


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