I got to my seat for Monday’s college basketball national championship game with 14 minutes left in the first half like a classic harried nerd, carrying a pair of binoculars that it turned out I didn’t need. I was worried about watching a basketball game from the sixth floor of a football stadium, but—no binoculars needed—you could see the game fine, kind of see how handsome Jay Wright is, and definitely see Roy Williams’s old ass sitting in a chair.
Most of the noise that I could hear was coming from the student sections underneath the baskets. They were the only two unquestionably loud sections of the stadium and it felt like they had been placed under the baskets to import collegiate bonhomie and intensity to a giant corporate event. For most of the game, it seemed like 500 genuinely pumped college students couldn’t outweigh 50,000 bored Syracuse fans.
Before we get into any more criticism of this tranquil crowd, I should make it clear that I am a terribly disloyal fan, in the great Philadelphia tradition. What Jimmy Rollins said eight years ago remains the truest thing that’s ever been said about Philly fans: “I might catch some flak for saying this, but, you know, they’re front-runners. When you’re doing good, they’re on your side. When you’re doing bad, they’re completely against you ... In Philly, can’t be no punk.”
Correct. I did not watch more than five minutes of a Villanova regular season game this year, but here I was grinning my ass off at the national championship game. In fact, like a true opportunistic front-runner, the last basketball game that I attended was last spring, a few blocks from my former workplace in New Orleans. The crowd at Game 3 of Warriors-Pelicans in New Orleans was small, intimate, loud, and drunk as hell—exactly the type of crowd that college stans say make amateur sports better than supposedly over-corporatized professional sports. This crowd was quiet, respectful, bored, and sober.
With sobriety, at least, we had no choice. The NCAA might be so greedy that it refuses to pay its star attractions and revenue producers—men’s basketball players—a single dollar for their work and talent, but it was willing to forgo the cash flow that could have come from selling beer at a basketball game.
Not selling booze wasn’t as big as a missed opportunity for revenue as it might seem, though; this was clearly was not a crowd looking to go crazy anyway. At least in my end of the relatively proletarian 600 level (my ticket, purchased on Saturday between the two semis, cost $72) the people in the seats were mostly demure middle-aged men and elderly couples with minimal rooting interest.
Behind Carolina blue, it seemed like the second most common shirt was official 2016 Final Four apparel with the logos of all four teams on it. The biggest non-UNC segment of my section—Carolina fans were maybe a little less than half of section 627—was probably Notre Dame or Syracuse fans.
As the first half wound down, I asked my neighbor if it was incredibly quiet or if I was just projecting. The guy next to me in a Notre Dame shirt was clearly a veteran of Final Fours, and had been to the semis on Saturday. His diagnosis: “This is what it’s like. Everyone’s hopes and dreams have been crushed by now.”
I could hear the team’s bands, though, and at a break with 1:52 left in the first half, UNC’s band played “Sweet Caroline.” I wasn’t primed to hate UNC—the enemy of Duke is my friend, and I enjoy that their response to the NCAA mandating that you can only pay athletes with classes was creating fake classes. But sweet Jesus do I hate “Sweet Caroline.” This was probably the most intense thing I felt during the first half.
I walked around the concourses at halftime, missing Allen Iverson and other luminaries. I did see a guy with a polo that said “Alcohol Compliance Supervisor” in huge letters on it, and while I tried to snap a surreptitious pic, the words on his back were quickly covered by the arms of women taking a selfie with him. I don’t want to give the impression that he wasn’t serious about supervising alcohol compliance. He seemed pretty committed to doing his job.
In a commercial break shortly after halftime, a montage of Villanova players and Jay Wright played on the big screen, set to “Hustlin’.” Rick Ross, a former corrections officer who adopted the name of an actual drug dealer for his stage name, definitely should be the official rapper of Villanova, a rich-kids school deep in the leafy suburbs that adopts and is adopted by Philadelphia precisely only when it’s convenient for one party.
(I should note here that I grew up in an adjacent leafy suburb, that my dad holds a degree from Villanova, and that Jay Wright’s family and my family nominally belong to the same Catholic church, though Wright and his family supposedly actually go. I wouldn’t know.)
With 6:30 left in the game, it’s announced that fans can grab commemorative 2016 Final Four/One Shining Moment cans of Coke on the way out of the stadium. A different Notre Dame fan nudges his buddy with “Hey, something for your collection!” Sure, why not?
With 1:52 left, Josh Hart gets fouled and misses a layup. I yell FUCKING FINISH at the 21-year-old Hart—I am garbage—and the elderly couple in front of me in matching Carolina polos visibly stiffen their backs.
With under 10 seconds left. I stand up; Notre Dame Guy asks me if I’m leaving. I’ve never sat for so much of a tense, high-stakes, well-played basketball game.
With 4.7 left, North Carolina’s Marcus Paige hangs in the air like a triple jumper on the runway and hits the three to tie the game. Two things happen at exactly the same time: the crowd immediately gets ear-splittingly loud, and orange things start flying from everywhere. I thought at first that something in the rafters malfunctioned, but it was actually fans throwing their orange Capital One (thank you, Capital One, for financing my ticket purchase) seat cushions in delirium.
And then. That was the most excellent ending to anything I’ve ever seen in my life. Ho-ly fucking shit. I don’t forget that no matter how great college sports can be, they’re still built around the total moral monstrosity of not paying their employees. But I get happy every time I think about Ryan Arciadiacano’s brush screen and Kris Jenkins’s Curry-esque bomb, and it doesn’t feel hollow at all.
It’s a little on the nose to make the Final Four experience a metaphor for the entire college revenue sports structure. But it’s hard to see the championship game’s Potemkin student sections and the oceans of rich apathetic fans behind them and not think of the the NCAA as a rigidly controlled corporate exercise hiding behind a facade of “student-athletes” entertaining their classmates.
NCAA sports are communism at its worst. The big, valuable industries—men’s basketball and football—have been nationalized, and they pay the way for the rest of the system, the costs of which very much include the bloated pay and perks of various apparatchiks. The men’s basketball television contract literally funds all of the other NCAA championships. (The College Football Playoff is not an NCAA championship.) The number of participants in some of those championships—think track or swimming—is directly tied to the size of the Turner March Madness contract.
There is genuine small-scale excitement in college sports, from Division III to the highest levels of Division I. And, again, Monday’s championship game was truly incredible on the court. But no matter how wonderful it all is—and let’s be clear, it’s fucking wonderful—the villages are props and the peasants are actors, and what matters is the people moving them into place, and why they’re doing so.
Dennis Young works for MileSplit and FloTrack in Austin; you can email and tweet him. Video by Bryan Deibel.