There is much to decry about college athletics.
At some schools, sports has despoiled the image and the mission of the university itself. There are many places where the head coach of a successful football or men’s basketball team earns multiples of what the school’s president gets and probably could get him or her fired.
The money has led to empire-building, and everybody’s getting paid except the players, unless they or their parents take an under-the-table payoff from some shoe huckster. At some institutions, “student-athlete” is an oxymoron.
Then, though, you have a moment like what occurred last Saturday night, and it’s clear that sports can still teach us something.
A University of Virginia basketball team that has worn the rotting albatross of last year’s historic first-round NCAA playoff loss for more than a year did something marvelous: It changed the story arc.
By beating Purdue and advancing to the Final Four, Coach Tony Bennett and his players sent a message to anyone who thinks he or she is jinxed, cursed, doomed to lose the big one. They sent a message to all who would let a failure define them.
From the moment they lost that game last March to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, the coach and the players owned it. They didn’t blame anyone but themselves. They didn’t get snippy when it was brought up for the thousandth time by some enterprising journalist. They made it clear that they intended to turn their worst day into a learning moment.
It might not have worked out. Only a miraculous sequence in the last six seconds of regulation play kept hope alive. Even if the Cavaliers had not reached the national semifinals, though, the message is there for anyone who wants to profit from it.
Never give up. Never let bankruptcy or disease or a humiliating defeat define you. There is no guarantee that things will get better, but they can’t get better if you surrender.
The U.Va. basketball team has been marked by playoff disappointments over the past five years. When this year’s team again was considered to be among the best in the nation, going into the NCAA Touranment ranked second in the Associated Press poll, there was still a feeling that the wheels somehow would fall off again.
There are Virginia basketball fans who could not bear to watch that regional final against Purdue. Fortunately for the players, they did not seem to share that nervousness.
A Purdue player could have gotten the rebound from Ty Jerome’s missed free throw with under six seconds left on the clock. Kiheil Clark could have failed to corral the ball that Mamadi Diakite punched out to him three quarters of a court away. Clark’s long pass to Diakite could have been off target or picked off by a Purdue player. Diakite could have missed that last shot or not gotten it off about a millionth of a second before the buzzer to send the game into overtime.
There are countless ways to lose, but for those who keep plugging, anything is possible.
At a time when college sports sometimes seems hopelessly corrupted by money and greed, the University of Virginia basketball team has given us, to quote Portia in “The Merchant of Venice,” “a good deed in a naughty world.”
And now, because they refused to fold when they were dealt a bad hand, the Wahoos are in the Final Four, playing with house money.