College Basketball Is Dead, Long Live College Basketball

Those of you who’ve been around here for a while might remember that I normally do an NCAA bracket competition around this time of the year. This year, I took one look at the bracket and said, “Eff that.” Not only did I not feel confident in any one team, I couldn’t even feel confident in selecting the top four teams. Make that eight. Actually, make that sixteen.

In the bracket that I did do for my annual “friends and family” competition, I was only able to correctly pick six of the final sixteen squads—and that includes Loyola Chicago, whom I actually picked to make the Sweet 16 on a hunch. Without them, I’d be batting about 31 percent. Three of my Final Four are already out, including my two finalists and eventual champ, North Carolina. Two #1 seeds are out before the Sweet 16 for only the third time ever. The South region’s four survivors are the 5, 7, 9, and 11 seeds—1-4 are gonzo. The “people’s bracket” in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge had Virginia as the overall winner, which would be fine except for the fact that they lost in the very first round by twenty points to something called a “UMBC,” becoming the first #1 seed to ever lose to a #16 seed.

So it’s not just that I suck at picking college basketball games, it’s that everybody sucks this year—the overall leader in ESPN’s bracket only has 560 of a possible 640. To get into the top 50 (out of about 20 million entries) you only need 520 points. What the hell is going on?

What’s going on is that the college game is forever and irrevocably damaged at its core. Depending on whom you ask, that’s either terrible, or wonderful.

This isn’t the first time that we’ve seen lower seeds disrupt the tournament, (Wichita State in 2013, Butler in 2010 and 2011, VCU in 2010, George Mason in 2006, Loyola Marymount in 1990, even Villanova in 1985, etc.) but it’s the first time that the entire bracket appears to have gone haywire in this fashion. What’s causing it?

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It’s Important To Win, It’s Inconvenient To Not Lose

Nothing ever changes. This past Sunday, I lined up on the starting gate of the Dayton, Ohio indoor BMX track next to a fellow named Brian. Thirty-one and a half years ago, Brian was the hottest 14 Beginner at Phase IV BMX in Pataskala, Ohio, winning three races in a row and effortlessly dominating the two dozen or so kids who would show up on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings to challenge him. I was a whippet-thin, sullen-faced kid on a hastily-assembled bits-and-pieces special, strong and fast but perilously unbalanced. It took me through the long summer and into fall to finally beat him, which I managed to do maybe twice before I turned fifteen in November and he did not. I can still remember crouching over my Patterson Pro next to his Diamond Back Silver Streak, eyes forward, waiting for the lights and horn to sound.

Everything changes. Brian and I have children now — his four-year-old son who wants nothing to do with BMX, and my eight-year-old boy who after just a few weekends has internalized the rhythms and the statistics and the casually bloody heart of the sport. I quit riding in my early thirties and redesigned my life around the automobile; Brian stayed with it and just kept getting better, mastering that deft touch some people have that lets them soar into the air then place their wheels back on the ground with the delicacy of a Nureyev or Baryshnikov. He was at the race to win a thirty-six-inch trophy and further his standing as a top-ranked 45 Expert. I was there because of a fiction I created, one in which my son and I are just racing because I want to do it and therefore there is no pressure on him to win. In this fiction, which is a mirror image of reality, he is merely my fellow traveler in a BMX journey that I decided on a whim to reanimate after fourteen years without so much as a practice lap.

A few slots down from us on the gate was another old soldier, a man who had been both a champion pro rider and a homeless alcoholic, now returned to the sport with a young man’s fervor but with a body broken by years of substance abuse and indifferent medical care. Yet there were moments in practice where you could see him ride up the face of a jump, rear up and balance his brand-new DK Professional on its back tire, then lean it into the next turn like a MotoGP superstar at Suzuka. We had briefly met at the registration desk earlier in the day, chatted for a moment, then walked towards the paddock with the same sort of cripple’s limp, each of us secretly and cruelly hoping the other fellow had less cartilage in his knees.

“Everybody ready?” the starter asked, and we all nodded. Brian, the other fellow, and I nosed up to the gate and sat there balanced, both feet resting on pedals, eyes forward, hands tensing then relaxing on the handlebar grips. The first two of us to cross the line would go on to the main event. The third-place racer would go home. Alright riders, the electronic voice intoned, random start. Riders ready… watch the gate! Four lights, four horns, and three men going from zero to 130 revolutions per minute in the space of four hard shoves at the pedals.

Ah, but we can come back to this race later. It’s not the important one.

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Your Daily Reminder That Everybody Is Hurting

Yesterday morning, Tyler Hilinski, the projected starting quarterback for the Washington State Cougars football team, was found dead in his apartment, the victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. He was just 21 years old.

This is a kid who was carried off the field on the shoulders of his peers just weeks ago, the hero of a triple-overtime comeback victory. On most college campuses, there is no bigger hero or star than the quarterback of a winning football team. No party is inaccessible, no club off limits. Every girl wants to date you, and every guy wants to be you.  To outsiders, it seems like the perfect life.

But for Tyler Hilinski, it was apparently anything but.

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Donald Trump Stared The NFL Directly In The Eye, And The NFL Blinked

One of the very best things about growing older (I turn 40 this month holy shit OMG OMG) is that one gains a bit of perspective.

When I was a child, the NFL was my obsession. I was a diehard Raiders fan, for no other reason than the Raiders were a particularly good team in the mid-80’s and Columbus, Ohio didn’t have an pro squad. I lived and died with each win and loss. I played John Madden and Joe Montana Football on the Sega Genesis with my best friend every day. I wore Raiders hats and Marcus Allen jerseys.

Of course, I then proceeded to grow up and stop worrying about the exploits of grown men who don’t know me, and I began to understand professional sports for what they are: entertainment. I still enjoy watching sports, but I view them the same way that many people view going to the movies—a nice way to kill a couple of hours with a healthy dose of escapism. It drives my friends and family crazy when they ask me who I’m rooting for and I say, “Nobody. I just like watching the games.”

It goes without saying that there are tens of millions of people who feel completely differently about professional sports, and, in particular, the National Football League. The NFL has dispatched all other pro sports with relative ease, thanks in no small part to fantasy games and betting, but also due to the physical nature of the game. Joe Sixpack feels a connection to NFL players—they work hard, just like he does. They go home dirty, bruised and bleeding, just like he does. And they love America, just like he does.

Whoops. Scratch that last bit.

When Colin Kaepernick, backup quarterback and the adopted son of two white parents, decided to protest police brutality against minorities by kneeling for the national anthem last season, I called him a troll. While statistics and data can always be cherry-picked to suit the needs of the editorialist, there is, at the very least, significant doubt about the validity of his point. Of course, the people who support #blacklivesmatter are nearly entirely the very same people who are saying that only police should have guns. I don’t get it either.

However, when a rather significant number of players began to join in the now-unemployed Kaepernick’s protest (which just proves that he’s unemployed because he’s a poor quarterback, and for no other reason), Donald Trump just couldn’t help himself—he had to comment.

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A Less-Than-Proud Moment And A Very Proud Moment, Courtesy of Youth Soccer

Soccer Saturday is, by far, my favorite day of the week. It’s not really even close.

My work schedule is such that I’m normally traveling out on Monday morning, working 16 hour days Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then flying home, dead tired, on Friday afternoon. Sunday is the day that I steel myself to do it all again. But Saturday? Saturday is the day where I either freeze in the cold, stand in the pouring rain, or endure third-degree sunburns to watch my son play soccer. Despite the always awful conditions, and the assault on my seasonal allergies, there’s nowhere I’d rather be than watching him play.

I’m a Soccer Dad, no doubt. I cheer loudly. I coach way too much from the sidelines. I pace and pace up and down the sideline during the games—I stopped bringing a chair years ago. I live and die with each play. My FitBit tells me that my heart rate more than doubles during the games. I know that my son cares immensely about winning and losing, and I know his day—no, his week is ruined if he doesn’t win.

This past weekend was almost like getting two-for-one, because we had a tournament! Over 150 top teams from Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, and Tennessee all came together in Georgetown, Kentucky, for the Stride tournament on Saturday and Sunday, and my son’s FC Kentucky Boys U9 squad was among them.

U9 is a little bit of a mix between kids who have been playing since they were 3 or 4 years old and live and breathe soccer (ex., my son, Kevin), and some kids who are still figuring out if this is something they want to do. Each kid is required to play a certain amount in each game, regardless if he’s a top player or not. U10 is where it gets super-duper serious, with more kids getting cut than making the squad, more intense travel, and no rules about the amount of playing time required.

But that doesn’t mean that U9 isn’t serious.

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Step On Up And Identify Yourself, Tournament Challenge winner

It all came down to the UNC-UK Elite Eight game. If UK had won, I would be writing this post as the winner of the Riverside Green challenge, sipping my tea bragging about my superior basketball knowledge. Instead, I finished fourth as UNC ended up not only winning that game but the entire tournament, making espn97517000 our annual winner. So, um, let us know who you are so I can give you your prize of your very own editorial column at Riverside Green. (And Lizzie, if it’s you, you already owe me a column.)

Colin Kaepernick Is Trolling All Of Us

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In the latest edition of “Things That Should Absolutely Not Be News,” Colin Kaepernick, the former starting quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers, has decided not to stand for the national anthem. This is only news because Kaepernick has about two more weeks before he’ll be sitting on his couch for the playing of the national anthem, having lost his starting job to none other than Blaine Gabbert. Prior to unseating Kaepernick in SF, Gabbert was formerly best known for being the worst quarterback in the league. So there’s that.

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