A recollection from my childhood: In the (relatively) small Midwestern town in which I grew up, many businesses would close on Good Friday from noon to 3:00 p.m. More than a few of the employees would spend that time in church before returning to work for what remained of the afternoon. At the time I think I took this pretty much for granted. Today, however, even in that same town, we would, I am sure, be hard-pressed to find even a single business doing anything similar.
A recollection from when I was just a bit older: The first game of the 1965 World Series fell on October 6. Because in 1965 that day happened also to be Yom Kippur, Sandy Koufax did not pitch. This was the Koufax who had won twenty-six games that season (pitching twenty-seven complete games, a number almost incomprehensible these days to younger fans, who are accustomed to think that six innings from a starting pitcher can be a “quality” start). He had a 2.04 ERA that season, along with 382 strikeouts. That was the Koufax who did not pitch because Game One fell on Yom Kippur. I’m not certain I knew what to make of it at the time or even understood the full significance of Koufax’s decision. But it must have made an impression, for I have never forgotten it.
Fast forward to March 2015: The state of Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), in the midst of that year’s March Madness, offered obeisance to the great gods of inclusivity and diversity, issuing not-very-veiled threats to remove its headquarters and future events from Indianapolis. Nor was this the first time the NCAA had used its considerable corporate heft to try to shape public opinion on social issues.
Look forward now to March 2016: The tournament’s first full weekend of play, in which sixty-four teams are reduced to (the sweet) sixteen, will take place from Thursday, March 17, to Sunday, March 20. The second weekend of play (March 24–27) will reduce the Sweet Sixteen first to the Elite Eight and then to the Final Four, who will have to wait yet another week before the tourney is finished and a champion crowned. True fans immerse themselves in the entire tourney, of course, but they may have different opinions about which weekend is most exciting. The second full weekend happens to be my own favorite. By that time the remaining sixteen teams are in large part the cream of the crop, and the competition is intense.
But there is a case to be made this year for suggesting that Christians should pass on this weekend—and perhaps on the entire 2016 tourney. Their God, after all, is not the NCAA’s god. And the dates for the games on the second full weekend should concern us. They are March 24 (Maundy Thursday), March 25 (Good Friday), March 26 (Holy Saturday), March 27 (Easter). Could it be that other things—things more earthshaking than March Madness—should occupy our attention in that span of days?
Someone might point out, of course, that I could take time out from watching basketball games to get to church services on those holy days. But that very way of putting things already suggests what would be occupying the center of my concern. That way of thinking would more or less accept the Obama administration’s view that religion has to do with worship and not much else. But, as even those who are not basketball fans know, the NCAA (and its television partners) has skillfully managed to turn March Madness into something that occupies the center of many peoples’ lives for the better part of a month. There are brackets to fill out, expert analyses to ponder, upsets to predict, amazing plays to watch time and again. This fills up an extraordinary amount of time, leaving a bit, of course, for worship. That all this happens during the liturgical season of Lent suggests that we might have found something really worth giving up.
Even better—though I will not hold my breath waiting for it to happen—would be for universities that claim to be serious about their Christian identity simply to decline to participate in a tourney that will occupy so much of the holiest four days of the Christian year. Baylor, Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown, Villanova, and Valparaiso might all renounce for a year their tournament aspirations and the sizable amounts of money that come with participation. (Could we add Duke to that list? Well, I referred to those universities “that claim to be serious about their Christian identity.”)
Readers may wonder, of course, whether it might be not March but the author of these reflections who is characterized by madness. Perhaps I’ve been reading too much Kierkegaard. Still, I am inclined to press the point. Perhaps in another time and place, a world in which Christians routinely put up the “Closed” sign for three hours on Good Friday—a world, that is, in which the culture did a good bit of our work for us—we would not need to worry so much if the dates of the NCAA tournament coincided with Holy Week. But the culture no longer does our work for us; indeed, it increasingly wants us to do its work, as the RFRA brouhaha amply demonstrated.
What this means, simply, is that Christians now live in a culture from which they must be more careful to distinguish themselves if they are to live their faith and transmit it effectively to the next generation. It will not be good enough to have our attention focused elsewhere, even though we take a little time out from that focus to attend a church service. This is a more general point, of course, as events such as soccer games and gymnastic competitions are increasingly scheduled for Sunday morning. We are not likely even to see that as problematic, however, if we no longer draw back almost instinctively when March Madness threatens to swallow up Holy Week.
This much we have to say for the NCAA: It honors its gods, as it did a year ago when the Indiana RFRA law was passed. If we do not honor ours, will we be entitled to complain the next time the NCAA uses its clout to issue edicts about the proper shape of our culture? Surely not.
Speaking only for myself then: At least for 2016, no brackets, no flipping from channel to channel in order to see as many games as possible. Indeed, no tourney at all. March Madness? This time around I think I’ll just say no.
Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University and a fellow of the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Culture.