The Real March Madness

If there is an annual event that most clearly demonstrates the importance of merit and skill on American college campuses, it is the March Madness surrounding the NCAA basketball championships.

The public, whose support of higher education is sharply waning in light of increasing collegiate inanities, intensely roots for favorite schools and players. In higher education, where, in general, success is often hard to measure and the bottom line is exceedingly ill-defined, March Madness is a conspicuous exception. The best team must win several games against exceedingly competent and competitive opponents. Therefore, only the very best, most productive players can play. Can you say that about, say, the typical college English Department faculty?

I was blown away when Jared Gould, Minding the Campus’s Managing Editor, sent me a story by Haley Taylor Schlitz from The Black Wall Street Times, which, among other things, said, “As we revel in the triumphs and heartaches on the basketball courts, we must also confront a disturbing trend … the systematic dismantling of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives.” Basketball excellence is based on merit—outstanding performance resulting from great talent and hard work. Those having it are rewarded with high recognition, money—from name, image, and likeness revenues—and campus and community adulation.

By contrast, DEI is militantly anti-merit: people should be evaluated based on biological attributes, such as the color of their skin. Practically speaking, in America, DEI is primarily about expanding black involvement in college life—and even sometimes in corporate job placement—combined with a contempt for the free expression of ideas traditionally the hallmark of collegiate life.

To use March Madness to lament attacks on DEI strikes me as ludicrous.

One area where black Americans have excelled based on merit is sports. I attend many college basketball games and it is certainly not unusual to see 10 black men playing, but virtually unheard of to see 10 white men on the court. Black basketball supremacy is universally accepted and is a consequence of exceptional talent and hard work. If we used a DEI mindset emphasizing skin color over merit, there should be lawsuits over the vast underrepresentation of whites, Asians, and Hispanics from college basketball teams.

Americans historically have thrived by celebrating excellence—smart people earn more than those who are cognitively challenged, while in the distant past, those with physical prowess often did better financially than those who were weaker and, accordingly, less productive. Economic development over time has increased the value of brains relative to brawn. Indeed, universities have flourished primarily by providing the training needed to allow smart, often physically undistinguished people to excel financially—the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Universities are inherently largely mental meritocracies, with high-level collegiate sports being an exception globally rather than the rule. No one talks about the Oxford University soccer team—there isn’t one.

Americans don’t like racism.  Voters in liberal states like California and Washington have rejected government-imposed affirmative action standards, giving preferences in college admissions, contracting, or hiring based on racial attributes. Californians twice have resoundingly voted against efforts of Sacramento politicians to use race as a consideration in admission practices—a viewpoint affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in Harvard v. Students for Fair Admissions.

Thus, the efforts to dismantle DEI programs are to be expected and, from my pro-merit perspective, applauded. The spirit of DEI is the antithesis of what makes college basketball fun. Most of the present or past basketball greats—LeBron James, Steph Curry, Michael Jordan, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, etc.—were black, but race played zero role in their success. Competence, skill, and determination did.

Photo by Brocreative — Adobe Stock — Asset ID#: 62391976 & Edited by Jared Gould


  • Richard Vedder

    Richard Vedder is Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus at Ohio University, a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, and a board member of the National Association of Scholars.

3 thoughts on “The Real March Madness

  1. “Black basketball supremacy is universally accepted and is a consequence of exceptional talent and hard work.”

    There is a sinister side of this that is often overlooked — the thousands upon thousands of young Black men growing up convinced that they will be signed by a NBA team and thus become an instant millionaire. Some are quite talented, and all put an incredible amount of hard work into it — but it ain’t gonna happen. Statistically speaking, it simply ain’t gonna happen….

    Someone needs to explain the concept of statistical outliers to these young men.

    Someone needs to explain that for every Marcus Camby, who did go from poverty in Hartford (CT) to millionaire status after three years at UMass, there are a million other young Black men who didn’t and won’t. Probably several million…

    The problem we have is that the average Black male high school graduate has the reading and writing ability of the average White female seventh grader. The related problem that no one talks about is that 2/3 of all Black college students are female. (While the NAEP doesn’t do headcounts by both race and sex, the NCAA does…)

    Yes, Black K-12 sucks — don’t get me going on how much K-12 in general sucks — but the problem that no one will even admit is that we have fatherless Black men growing up convinced that basketball will make them rich and hence they don’t need to worry about things like “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.”

    And all the March Madness does is further glorify the winners at the casino — the hundred or so Black men who have a genuine chance of becoming instant millionaires — while ignoring the millions of other Black men who worked just as hard and don’t. The concept of statistical outliers and how truly terrible an investment a lottery ticket is becomes lost in the bright lights and dancing girls.

    And I also blame the NCAA and the colleges — during the Calipari days at UMass, it came out that one basketball player had a *combined* SAT score of something like 440. Then someone leaked the team’s grades to the Boston Globe — even with the quite expensive tutoring efforts, they were still abysmal. They’d never have been in college, even at UMass in the ’90s, but for their ability to play basketball.

    Major League Baseball is different — it has its own farm system and develops its own talent — while one can play baseball in college and perhaps be recognized by a recruiter, one still has to come up through the modestly-paid minor leagues. But the NFL, NBA, & NHL use academia as their farm teams and that should be ended.

    Let us not forget the fact that college sports were intended to be participatory — that they were part of what was once a physical education mandate that applied to all students, with the assumption that every student would play *a* sport, and that the physical education department would be the essential equivalent of the English department. “Student” athletes used to come from the student body….

    So this is why I don’t celebrate March Madness — and if we really wanted to recognize that there might be a scintilla of validity in the DEI diatribes, it would be the extent to which we are exploiting young Black males. Not all of the ones entertaining us will make it to the NBA and we need to be ashamed of the fact that we are not encouraging them to make the most of the free college education they are being given — they are the ones graduating without student loans and have the ability to have a degree worth something when they don’t make it into the NBA.

    But even worse are all the younger ones practicing hour upon hour on the asphalt courts throughout the land. They need to be told that the route to success is through academic proficiency and this is what I condemn the DEI folks for not doing. But how many would still have jobs if we had an incoming class of Black males with an average (combined) SAT score of 1400?

  2. I think that the worst result of the “Black Wall Street Times was the abilities of the author.
    She was unable to see that her second thought repudiated her first thought.

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