Class is in session at my university this week, but I won't be there. I'll be a part of March Madness, but I'm not a basketball player. I'm a member of my school's band, which makes me a member of the "spirit squad"—the peppy umbrella term that also encompasses our school's cheerleaders and mascot. As such, I am taking an all-expenses-paid trip courtesy of the NCAA. Chartered planes, hotels, and per diem are all provided by an organization founded "as a way to protect student-athletes," even though, during March Madness, we aren't much of either.
We don't sit in a Holiday Inn doing homework until game day. We're on vacation. We stay in resorts; we get sunset views; we share our hotels with famous actors and musicians; we stay in places that give out free wine without carding us. Spirit squads for higher-seeded teams receive relatively luxurious accommodations in prime, downtown locations. Those for lower-seeded teams sometimes wind up in the boonies near the airport. My school has never been a heavy favorite, but my hotels have been unbelievable. I can only dream of what Gonzaga's hotel will look like this year.
It's a racket—the little one that blooms within the big one. No one's an amateur during March Madness.
What's a typical week for a spirit squadder? If the team is placed far enough from home, we get to fly with them. If the team stays close by, which happens only to top seeds in the first round, we'll bus in on game day. That hasn't been my experience, though. The round of 64 is played on Thursday and Friday. Let's say Texas is playing at the Staples Center on Thursday; the Longhorns need to adjust to the new time zone, get in some practice, and make appearances for alumni and donors in the area. So they leave on Tuesday, which means that a saxophonist in the band gets a night out after he checks in to his hotel, then Wednesday is all his. If Texas wins on Thursday, he has the rest of the day and Friday to himself before the round of 32 game on Saturday. If Texas wins on Saturday, guess what? He's got another free trip in store.
I don't know what the players do. We don't talk much. We don't have much in common, but I've never had a bad interaction with any of them. I would imagine their experience is a more supervised, more PG-13 version of ours. A couple years ago, two of my team's players asked my friend to buy them a bottle of Ciroc the night before a game. My friend declined.
Spirit squad isn't so restricted. This isn't high school. There are no bed checks or curfews. No one puts masking tape on our door frames. We don't run or sweat; hangovers are easier to manage. We put on our makeup or facepaint and smile for Jim Nantz, and we play our instruments, and our job for the day is done. The same night those players asked for a bottle of Ciroc we were taking shots of Everclear from a trombone.
When we first check into our hotel we get three days' per diem up front, usually around $55 total, which doesn't seem like a lot until you realize that, for a college kid, "per diem" is Latin for "beer money." If we win our first game, we get per diem for the remainder of the weekend when we return to the hotel. A $5 tax on all 29 people in the band makes for a nice slush fund for filling a hotel suite with booze. We never finished that Everclear. Every year we end up dumping liquor down the drain. Last year it was the moonshine I don’t remember drinking.
The NCAA wants every team to have some support, but not every school has cheerleaders or a band. I've twice been a mercenary spirit squadder, paid in extra per diem to cheer for a school I don't attend. This happens more than you think. Podunk University stumbles into winning the Big Sky tournament and needs someone in its corner halfway across the country. A Podunk U. bursar or a band director or an operations manager gets in contact with someone from one of the other schools in the same host city, who in turn asks his spirit squadders if they want to be peppy on another team's behalf, for cash. Sure, we say. What do we care? A lot of us will probably watch Podunk U. get smacked around on TV anyway. A Podunk U. rep hands out Podunk U. shirts to us mercenaries, and all we have to do is play our normal repertoire and watch the alumni in the building to pick up on the cheers. When the game is over, the people from Podunk U.—school reps and alumni—are nice to us. We share a fleeting kinship, even if we are only Potemkin fans.
March Madness is a great time for small hustles like this. All that TV money lavished on the tournament has to wind up in someone's hands, after all. Cash is everywhere. There are stacks upon stacks of the stuff floating around every host city; the chaperones have manila envelopes with hundreds, even thousands of dollars. (No word on how this affects my amateur status.)
The coming tournament will be my fourth. I'm flying out this afternoon, but I'd rather not tell you where I'm going; like the big racket of March Madness, everyone knows about the little racket, but no one's supposed to talk about it in public. It doesn't matter, anyway. I'll have a great time wherever I wind up this March, because I'll get free shit like pins and sweatshirts, and someone will stuff cash in my pocket as compensation for my having to miss school.
These trips are like living a dream. Every year I nearly fail a class while readjusting to the real world. I've never been to the Final Four. Spirit squads for the better teams will wind up missing nearly a month of school. With the condensed schedule, travel fatigue, and no access to tutors, I don't know how those guys manage to pass their classes. Thank god the NCAA is around to protect us from the pernicious evils of professionalized sports.