By the time this little piece of writing runs, this year’s mad march towards the crowning of an NCAA college basketball champion will have begun it’s climactic careen. It is likely that at one point or another over a hundred million people will tune in to watch sixty-plus teams vie for the honor of cutting down the nets in New Orleans, the site of this installment’s Final Four. As these fans take in the games over $700 million in television revenue will be made, and over $200 million in bets will be waged.There is even an estimate that $17 billion of business will be lost, as the employed denizens of the cubicle will be spending time at work streaming games online. And, I’m not sure if any researcher feels up to the task of estimating how much class time will be skipped, as college students opt to watch the opening rounds of the tournament. In the midst of much of this frenzy, there will be more than a fair share of buzzer-beating shots, upsets, comebacks, and downright no-contests. However, in the midst of all this, that is, in the actual play of the game, there is more present—and of real, abiding value at that—than most of us realize.
Once you clear away much of the peripheral matter surrounding something like the NCAA Tournament, we come upon something of serious consideration. As Fr. James Schall points out, “[Aristotle] thought that play—say, a championship game—bore some of the characteristics of contemplation . . . Play and contemplation were alike in that both were activities indulged in ‘for their own sakes,’ whereas business and work were for something else. Games need not exist, just as the world need not exist, but both do.” Among the things that are good for their own sake, that at their core need no further justification, games, such as basketball, can be listed. Of course there are secondary consequences and goals of the college basketball tournament: ad revenue, ticket sales, student-athlete scholarships, major contracts for big-time coaches; I will grant all of that. Yet, at its core, basketball illustrates the freedom of man in a pursuit that is beyond and above the merely pragmatic and profitable. It puts before us the reality that we are more than boorish business drones, and that we rightly pursue play, playing for the sake and joy of the game.
Of course, the vast majority of people will never play in the NCAA, so the lot left to us this March is that of spectator. But even this has a real value, as Schall continues, “We are rightly fascinated by [games]. Even watching a good game can be fascinating. It is its own world and time. It absorbs our attention in something that is not ourselves.”
Moving onward, and this might come across as a bit silly at first, but, basketball—and by extension other types of sport—illustrates the grand reality of our body-soul duality. We see in the quick-paced fluster of the game, and rather impressively at that, the interweaving and intricate interaction between the various components that make up the composite we are: mind, body, decision-making and self-controlling faculties, passions, emotions, drive, etc. As millions watch the games this week, they will witness, unknowingly for the most part—you being the exception now, dear reader—the mystery of existence as embodied persons. This mystery will be on display, free from a sterile and unmoving emphasis on the soul and intellect at the expense of the body, and at the same time, free for the moment from an unruly and undue emphasis on the body at the expense of the soul and intellect. Of course, the intelligence on display on the court is not that of the scholar and scribe, but of the master of a craft. And for those that wish to denigrate ball players as denser than the wood they play on, it must be acknowledged that praise is granted to “basketball smarts,” and a pride of place is given to the point guard who can rightly be called a “floor general,” due to his grasp of the subtleties and unspoken complexity of the game, and how to respond to them while getting his teammates to do the same.
The games of the NCAA tournament will also provide perhaps the greatest and most compelling apology and analogy for a proper conception of moral freedom that many viewers and spectators will have received in a good long while. For—to make a somewhat crude and simple distinction, that will nonetheless serve the purposes of this simple piece—we seem to have before us two conceptions of freedom, with one or the other guiding or dominating a person’s experience and use of their personal freedom.
For one, we have an understanding of freedom as being free from outside, and perhaps even internal, constraint and coercion. In this, order has no essential place since what I seek is to simply be free, so that I might pursue whatever I wish. Opposed, or at least put in tension with this, is another conception of being free to pursue the good and what ought to be done and said. Here I follow certain internal and external guidelines and proscriptions so that I might choose a good course of action, whereby I eventually habitually choose the good, becoming free from my passions and whims so that I might flourish as a human being. And it is within this order and striving for virtue that I find freedom.
To bring us back to basketball, all of this becomes more easily and clearly understood by seeing the game in motion. Incredible freedom is found within the confines of rule and whistle and buzzer and sideline. This freedom allows for immense creativity as an orange sphere plays the part of palette, as such artists like Iverson, Nash and Jordan have been able to show, in both the pro and college ranks, an analogy of the freedom found within a life lived in serious pursuit of virtue. A basketball game played with no reference to or reliance upon the rules of the game ceases to be what it was meant to be, turning lawless and downright unappealing. Just so with the life not ordered along the lines of virtue and internal freedom, but one devoted to licentiousness and a dissolute engagement with the great task of achieving a degree of truly human satisfaction.
I hope I haven’t overburdened the game of basketball and the NCAA tournament. I do not deny the presence of much to criticize in the college basketball, and further, college athletic scene. However, there is also much to defend, including the above-mentioned aspects of the game that are not often considered. These concepts of authentic freedom, the leisurely pursuits of man, and of body-soul duality, truly bring us into contact with some of the more impressive, sane, and joy-giving aspects of our humanity. So, in the end, by watching the spectacle we call March Madness—and taking all of this in—we can actually be taking a stroll into sanity.
 Schall, James V. On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs. ISI Books, Wilmington, DE. 2001. 104.