March Madness is back! After the NCAA basketball tournament was canceled last year because of COVID-19, pent-up anticipation awaits as the Final Four takes place on April 2 and 4 for the women and April 3 and 5 for the men. I might add that the Iowa women’s basketball team (20-9) reached the Sweet Sixteen for the eighth time in program history and the third in its last four NCAA Tournament appearances. Despite a valiant effort, #5 ranked Iowa lost on Saturday to #1 ranked Connecticut.
Freshman star Caitlyn Clark of Iowa, who is from West Des Moines, averaged 27.8 points a game in the regular season, shot nearly 50%, and led the nation in scoring. Called by some as the most exciting player in college basketball, Clark was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year. It’s Madness!
The 2021 Women’s Final Four is scheduled for Friday, April 2 and Sunday, April 4, and the Men’s Final Four is set for Saturday, April 3 and Monday, April 5. Can you tell I’m pumped??
March Madness was first used to refer to the excitement around Illinois state basketball tournaments sixty years ago. The phrase did not become connected with the NCAA tournament, however, until CBS broadcaster Brent Musburger used it during coverage of the 1982 tournament.
The increasing popularity of the NCAA tournament is maddening, isn’t it? Basketball has always been my favorite sport. I shot endless hoops in my driveway as a kid and played in high school and a bit in college. I don’t get to watch much basketball these days other than the semifinals and finals of the NCAA Tournament for both men and women.
People across the country love to guess which teams will be in the Final Four, with thousands of office pools and formal and informal betting going on. CBS Sports and Turner Sports expect to rake in more than $1 billion in advertisements for the men’s tournament. And up to twenty million people are likely to watch the final men’s game, with up to 47 million people expected to place bets throughout the tournament.
The “madness” can be a lot of fun. In a twist on all the betting pools, one of the churches that Gary and I served celebrates March Madness for Missions every year. People contribute $10 for every bracket they submit, and it raises thousands of dollars for missions at home and abroad. No one wins anything but the bragging rights, but the Missions budget sure flourishes!
At the same time, I am a bit uncomfortable with the effects of our national obsession. I hate to be a party pooper. However, to paraphrase Judas, “Couldn’t the staggering sum of money bet on the NCAA Tournament have been used to feed the poor?” Businesses suffer millions of dollars in lost productivity because of our madness. Not to mention the poor graduation rate of many athletes and how our adulation of young athletes affects their ability to put the game in a proper perspective. Could it be that we have some misplaced priorities?
It seems so, given the plight of the Women’s NCAA Tournament, which is played at the same time as the men’s tournament but receives much less attention and does not turn a profit. This year the NCAA was called out big-time by women coaches and players who were furious over the imbalance between the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
In a social media post last Tuesday, Georgia Tech women’s basketball coach Nell Fortner criticized the NCAA, “Thank you for using the three biggest weeks of your organization’s year to expose exactly how you feel about women’s basketball – an afterthought,” she said. “Thank you for showing off the disparities between the men’s and women’s tournaments that are on full display in San Antonio. From COVID testing to lack of weight training facilities, to game floors that hardly tell anyone that it’s the NCAA Tournament and many more.”
I trust you are aware of another kind of March Madness taking place simultaneously with the NCAA tournament. St. Paul called it foolishness. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18. NIV) It’s Holy Week, and Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die. It’s not going to be pretty. Jesus will be betrayed by Judas, arrested, tortured, humiliated, denied by Peter, abandoned by his disciples, and crucified on a cross while soldiers madly gamble for his garments.
The disciples don’t understand that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength, so they argue over which one of them is the greatest and who deserves the richest contract. Could it work for us?
- We could sell advertising space on our clergy robe and stole to bring in a few more bucks.
- How about clergy shoe contracts? After all, when we wear a robe, our shoes are the only item of clothing that stands out. We could start a new trend in dress Nikes, changing color with the liturgical season.
- If a church pays 100% of its apportionments, each staff member gets an extra week of vacation.
- Anyone who brings in five new members gets their own parking spot.
- If a child invites a friend to virtual Vacation Bible School, they can go to the front of the refreshment line at coffee hour for the next three months after in-house worship resumes.
Yes, all of that is madness. But during this most holy of weeks, how will you enter into the real madness, the madness of the cross rather than the hype of the NCAA? Will you take the time to read the Passion stories in all four gospels? Will you make the journey from Jesus humbly riding on a donkey into Jerusalem while the crowds waved palm branches; to cleansing the temple; to weeping over Jerusalem; to discovering a fig tree withered up and teaching on faith; to eating a last supper with his disciples and washing their feet; to Jesus’ betrayal by Judas and his arrest by the Sanhedrin; to the madness of trials by high priest Ananias, Pilate, and Herod; to his crucifixion on a cross; and to Jesus’ seven last “words”?
Will you pay attention to what is truly important and not let the world dictate your thoughts, words, and deeds? Will you play the fool for the sake of the gospel? How will you embrace the madness of the cross and lead with your heart?
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather, the greatest among you must become like the youngest and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves. But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:24 NRSV)
The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, April 12.