Alonzo Mourning, the former All-Star Miami Heat center, is onstage, asking around to the assembled crowd: “Let me get a show of hands. How many of y’all would like to see college players stay longer in college?”
He’s met with a somewhat tepid cheer, partly because we are plunked down on benches outside a sprawling re-creation of a dusty roadhouse bar in Austin, Texas, called Bangers. The speakers and the blaring PA system are doing their darndest to command focus, but they’re competing with whole pigs roasting on spits, the ambient music from inside and all the nearby taverns, and the constant low-bore hum of non-sports conversations.
Bangers is also crammed with companies with little stands pitching all kinds of low-level brand interaction, merch for sale, and some seriously cute dogs. Plus, it seems as if everyone is already a good three to four hours into some serious day drinking—not exactly the optimal conditions for a serious call and response or even a full-throated defense of the NCAA.
We’re smack dab in the midst of the citywide, 10-day-long megalopolis that is the South By Southwest Festival, jam-packed with hundreds of new films, bands, apps, companies from megabrands to plucky start-ups, celebrities hawking celebrity, and even politicians galore. If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending, when you’re knee-deep in the apparent non-stop fun being had by the over 150,000 devotees that have made this pilgrimage, it can feel not unlike the perma-kegger that serves as the Dionysian backdrop to Richard Kelly’s generally loathed post-Donnie Darko feature, Southland Tales.
It is no place for a roundtable.
Regardless, there is a whole series of sports panels as well, dealing with the “cultural impact and the human experience, tackles the future of sport in all its forms, and embraces entertainment and innovation.” Given the vastness and all-encompassing nature of SXSW, it’s almost shocking that the sports world only planted their flag one year ago. I’m here specifically for this roundtable discussion about the changing definition of strength and masculinity featuring Mourning and ex-NBA and NCAA stars Bo Kimble and Jason Collins. It’s called “Real Strength: Tournament Tales.”
One of the sponsors is rolling out a new ad for March Madness, a follow-up to the serious tearjerker that ran during Super Bowl Sunday and showed dads being, well, dads. Not so much the fumbling and yet authoritarian goofs of TV sitcom fame, but nurturing dudes, and sentimental ones at that. Jocks, of course, have always been posited as a hetero masculine ideal since time immemorial.
Granted, given the setting, it would have been hard to really delve into these questions, but we did get to hear about different kinds of strength than those that are generally associated with sports: Mourning’s struggle to return to the court after a life-threatening illness, Kimble’s will to soldier on in the tournament after the tragic death of a teammate, and Collins’s courage when he became the first openly gay athlete in the four major U.S. pro leagues.
The thing is, for the most part, the conversation consisted of homilies and truisms that are as old-school a definition of masculinity in sports as you’ll find. Sacrificing for teammates and/or family, giving 110 percent, being humbled by challenges and obstacles but finding the inner fortitude or pure will to go on, playing the game with honor and integrity, and so on.
Far from a redefinition of strength, it was an affirmation of the idea that sports is the place where boys learn to become men. That’s not to say that anything they said was false; far from it. Where we get into a dicey spot is the second part of the panel’s title, “Tournament Tales,” and that later that evening, we’d learn which lucky 64 schools had made the cut.
Mourning and I spoke about it earlier that afternoon. Not only was he against getting rid of the NBA’s age limit, he was absolutely steadfast in his belief that the players should wait longer before turning pro. He described his time at Georgetown as “the our best years of my life. And I wouldn’t be sitting here without those years.” He bemoaned that so many young kids “don’t find value in the social environment and the social value of the college environment and they don’t see a great deal of value in getting an education.”
As to why that’s not the norm these days, Mourning does point a finger at the kids themselves and their “sense of entitlement,” but he also talked about the lack of adults in the room, or of people steering these kids the right way. He mentioned the natural advantages that he had, from “a foster mother that was a retired schoolteacher” to “a high school coach that wasn’t looking for a handout, to sell me to some university.”
But eventually we do arrive at the billion-dollar elephant in the room: the money.
As Mourning discussed the financial pressures that are placed both on the NCAA itself and the student-athletes, there was a growing weariness in his voice, or at least a realization that there’s no going back.
In a panel at this year’s MIT Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference on amateurism, NCAA officials sang more or less the same wistful tune, longing for “a recalibration of the importance of the educational aspect” and wishing with all their might “that college returns to college athletics, and student returns to student-athlete.”
That the NCAA is a horribly corrupt cartel isn’t really a question anymore. John Oliver devoted the bulk of his Sunday program to hilariously outlining all the shameless hypocrisies: raking in billions in revenue while clinging to accounting tricks to cry poverty, the punishments that are meted out for extra pasta, while simultaneously slapping brands on every square inch of available real estate, even including the ladder that will be used to cut down the nets. (It’s Werner Ladders, the “Official Ladder of the NCAA Basketball Championship.”)
“It is so damn easy to expose the NCAA, but it will never be enough because they are immune to argument and utterly oblivious to derision,” Dave Zirin wrote at The Nation. “It is, as Kain Colter described, a dictatorship except its great weapon is not torture. It’s the absence of shame.”
Mourning is on board with this, to be sure.
“It's so baffling to me that the NCAA doesn’t consider protecting some of these top-rated athletes so they can have insurance in place so they can protect themselves,” he said. “Everybody has their hand out, because the NCAA is getting paid billions of dollars, and that is overshadowing the essence of why kids go to college.”
So I spoke by phone with Michael Kimmel, a sociology professor at Stony Brook University, and the author of Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. Kimmel also worked with Dove, the sponsors of that evolving-masculinity panel in Austin, on their “Real Strength” campaign. He’s optimistic about men as a whole, but holds no illusions about the NCAA itself.
“I feel about the NCAA as an organization the way I feel about UEFA and FIFA. Which is, it’s the most corrupt organization that has absolute power, is not accountable to anybody, and probably should be shut down,” he said. “Their vision, however, of the scholar-athlete, which they of course themselves betray on a daily basis, the vision of the scholar-athlete seems to be a noble one and perfectly worth defending.
“The easiest way to say it is, just as on campuses, you wish that the fraternities would actually fulfill their own stated mission—raising men of honor and integrity and doing service, et cetera; building ‘good’ men. You wish the NCAA would actually live up to its own promise.”
The grim irony is that Mourning is right. Ideally, yes, we would be able to, as he said, “formalize this so it’s beneficial for both parties,” because “it shouldn’t look so lopsided.”
Sadly, the thing that everyone wants to be true—that universities could once again be an actual means toward an education—exists now as a nostalgic dream or a ham-fisted, legally dubious argument.
But while speaking with Mourning, I realized that it’s not as simple as my or Kimmel’s or Oliver’s desire to grab pitchforks and stakes and burn the NCAA to the ground, especially if you could hear the way in which he talks about his Georgetown coach, John Thompson.
“It wasn’t about the money with them. It was about raising a child. That’s what it was about. But that’s an old-school mentality. It was truly about raising young men. It really was,” he said. “They used practices like their classrooms. And they would teach us. I learned so much from Coach Thompson about how to be a man. I learned more about how to be a man than how to be a good basketball player.”
And now we’re back to the panel, and perhaps the somewhat radical notion that buried beneath the grunting, state-sanctioned violence and the dull athlete-as-warrior paradigms, are values about masculinity that have always been there, and that aren’t that dissimilar from the heartstring-tugging images in a soap ad.
The weekend at SXSW was a constantly swirling paradoxical churn—a festival that was originally devised as a fairly humble celebration of the burgeoning Austin music scene becoming a beast that threatens to devour the city itself. We’re engaged in conversations about the NCAA tournament with one of their corporate brethren that’s simultaneously creating a forum that might nudge one or two more calls to get rid of the NCAA altogether, while maybe selling a few more bars of soap in the process. And yes, the nice PR folk that shepherded me around SXSW were absolute true believers when it comes to Dove’s campaign and its potential to do some good and all of that, etc.
I wish I had the answers. Maybe, for the moment, walking away with some appreciation of the NCAA ideal, while still decrying its existence, and holding these two paradoxical thoughts in one’s head simultaneously is enough.