Liberals have been routinely criticized the past several years for unnecessarily and cynically politicizing sporting events, and in doing so, ruining what was once considered a populist form of entertainment. (See: Kaepernick, Colin.) But this year’s NCAA Tournament has turned that paradigm on its ear, as it’s been conservatives, and not liberals, who have politicized the typically apolitical March Madness event.
Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch, owners of Koch Industries, the second largest privately-held company in the U.S. Together, have made Wichita State, an otherwise fine and good school to root for, a steward for their hyper-conservative, libertarian agenda. And they’ve done so not just with academic donations but by pouring more than $10 million into the men’s basketball program to transform it from a Cinderella-story into perennial title contender.
This isn’t merely to give back to the Wichita community either, as Charles Koch has misleadingly stated. Koch is actively using the Shockers basketball team as a marketing vehicle for his company and policies. He advertises Koch Industries on the sidelines at games and use the team as a recruiting tool for prospective employees (see below). Wichita State, a once-negligible, small-time college basketball program, has now become an avatar for the Koch’s unique brand of ultra-fiscal conservatism — one that denies climate science, and wants to dismantle our social safety net.
And that, to me, makes them very unlikeable.
Others have had trouble rooting for 16-seed Penn, simply because it’s the alma mater of President Trump. Each year, the Ivy League sends their best team to the Tournament, and it’s always fun to cheer for that ragtag group of nerds as they try to best a powerhouse NCAA program. But Trump’s association with Penn made it impossible for some people to enjoy the underdog Quaker squad:
And here’s conservative columnist and resident Trump-hater Bill Kristol saying Penn’s Tournament bid was injustice to the world.
Not that the NCAA is wholesome. A recent FBI investigation has laid bare what many of us have known for years: The NCAA is laughably corrupt, and it exploits its teenage athletes to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. But the Tournament has always served as a much-needed mental break from the awfulness in this world. Instead, it included a few reminders of that this year.
As Kristol states, this is unfair to Penn. Same goes for Wichita State. I’m sure there are players on those teams who don’t share Donald Trump’s and Charles Koch’s politics, and resent being associated with such divisive figures. But it also wasn’t fair when NFL players were being relentlessly criticized earlier this year for kneeling during the National Anthem. And unlike the Koch Brothers’ dealings at Wichita State, the NFL protesters weren’t operating underhandedly — they were conducting their activism in the open. Yet NFL fans excoriated those players for having the audacity to protest at all.
So it seems equally unfair to not at least point it out.
Not that it matters anymore. Wichita State lost in the first round, in an upset to №13-ranked Marshall. And Penn lost to №1-ranked Kansas.
That I enjoyed.