Monday, March 18, 2013

My March Madness

The bracket is out. (This is the best one, with tip-off times and TV networks). Admittedly, this is a difficult time of the year for me. No, not because of some tragic event's anniversary or haunting reminder. The reason: college basketball.

Having spent seven years involved in Division I women's college basketball, being around basketball teams and having friends that play, have played, or currently coach Division I men's basketball, it's tough to avoid basketball on a daily basis from October to February. It is impossible to escape in late February and March as teams are winding down their seasons and vying for automatic NCAA bids in their conference championships.

The NCAA tournament actually starts Tuesday and Wednesday nights with the First Four, but Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday will offer some of the year's best basketball games, and many of us will be watching or listening. Many of us will be picking games in our brackets, filling out multiple brackets to cover for Cinderella scenarios or our Alma mater. Workplace productivity on Thursday and Friday for many will slow to a crawl (At 11:15 AM CST on Thursday I might be a little distracted.)

Michigan State - 2000 National Champions
I have been blessed through basketball, without a doubt. For many basketball traditionalists, women's basketball is, at best, a fringe sport, but it provided me an experience many students never have as undergraduates. I was able to gain experience in film editing, strength and conditioning practices and was afforded access to some of the best coaching minds in basketball. I also benefited from the physical activity of daily practices, the academic advantages of preferred scheduling and an abundance of athletic apparel. My experience at Michigan State led me to Marshall University, then William and Mary. I got to travel across the country, saw some fantastic cities, ate in great restaurants, and even went to Mexico and Colombia due to the game of basketball. These are all fine blessings themselves.

But the danger of March is finding ourselves emotionally tied to the outcome of a 40-minute contest played by 18 to 24-year-old's; as if we have something on the line ourselves. Taking pride in a program's successes is fine, and being disappointed when they lose is acceptable too; but our emotions cannot use the game of basketball as their barometer. For the coaches, this is even more of a struggle, as their ability to provide for their families depends on their performance. Thankfully, for us as Christians, our right standing with the Lord and his acceptance of us is not based on our works, but through our faith in Christ, and His imputed righteousness.

However, that radical grace is not demonstrated in the halls of athletic departments throughout the NCAA. If you want to see who's hiring, just check out the The Market on the NCAA's website. It's full of basketball job opportunities, and will have even more here in the next few weeks. (There were 78 openings as I wrote this.) Staffs will lose their jobs, and the coaching carousel will continue. I remember the tension that existed following our losses in our conference tournaments, wondering whether or not I'd be able continue graduate school or have a job that next week. It is almost assured that all of the coaches that you see on the sidelines in the NCAA Tournament will have jobs next year. Of the 347 Division I basketball teams, there are 279 coaches that must be concerned for their livelihood and families.

As we head into this March Madness, remember that these coaches (both in men's and women's basketball) and their staffs are under tremendous pressure to succeed, and to find definition by wins and losses. Please pray for them, their hearts, and for their families. Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes faithfully minister to coaches and athletes (who are typically pretty stubborn and prideful due to their success in coaching), and will be doing so at the Final Four for both the men and women.

I was constantly challenged by this, and it is an ugly perspective to have. I am thankful that Christ's acceptance does not ride on wins and losses. So, I'll be watching this week like everyone else, but with a perspective that the wins and losses in my bracket do not determine my identity in Christ or control my emotions.

As a Michigan State graduate, the Spartans are my obligatory pick. If they're struggling in the tournament, be sure to check in and see how I'm handling it.