On Monday night, the NCAA men’s basketball final epitomized March Madness, but perhaps not in the manner that the creators intended. The game itself was a classic: two college hoops blue bloods—the North Carolina Tar Heels and Kansas Jayhawks—squaring off, with Kansas engineering the biggest comeback in NCAA finals history and securing the 2022 national championship by a score of 72–69. The North Carolina team was particularly compelling. Under the leadership of first-year head coach Hubert Davis, they were in danger of not even making the tournament during a mercurial first part of the season. But they not only made it to the madness of March. They advanced to the finals by defeating archnemesis Duke, sending their legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski into retirement. And yet, despite all of this basketball nirvana, a stench remains from the North Carolina side that no one seems to want to discuss. Davis is so likable, the team was such a plucky underdog, and they came so incredibly close that all the media wants to do is cheer their effort and move on. But the odor lingers. As the game went on, it was difficult to not feel more and more uneasy with what was on display.
The Tar Heels were operating with just a six-person rotation, meaning that most of the team was reduced to cheering the players on the court. It also meant that the weight and strain of a 40-minute game would be on only six pairs of shoulders. Perhaps their most vital player, center Armando Bacot, sprained his ankle in the previous game, so was already hurting but determined to persevere. Then, in the game itself, two other players were badly hurt. First there was sharpshooter Brady Manek. He took an unintentional elbow to the forehead that caused his head to jerk backward. Manek looked dazed but stayed in the game, as officials reviewed to see if the blow was in fact done with malice. Yet, even with this break in the action, there was no evidence that anyone on the coaching or medical staff checked to see if Manek had a concussion.
Then there was Puff Johnson, the team’s sixth man. With just four minutes to play, Johnson dropped to his hands and knees and threw up on the court, after motioning to his chest. This was terrifying to witness, bringing to mind people like Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis, players who died after experiencing heart problems on the court. But Johnson’s nausea was explained away by the announcers’ saying that the Tar Heel bench was telling them he had taken a blow to the stomach (although no replays were shown to demonstrate this). One might think that would be all we would see from Johnson, but he was put back in with 38 seconds left after Bacot went down with yet another twist on the same ankle he had injured two days prior. This took place after the floor board of the Super Dome actually came unglued, causing an injury that may have cost North Carolina the game. Bacot, after falling down, hopped to the front court before the officials called a time-out. (The Kansas players, up only one point, waited for Bacot instead of going in for a layup, a remarkable act of sportsmanship.) While all this was happening, the announcers praised everyone’s toughness for “gutting it out.”
But while toughness was shown by the players, a similar courage was not shown by the coaching staff. These are kids, and of course they are going to want to play. This is when adults need to step in and tell the young people what trainer Eddie Futch told Joe Frazier before the 15th round at the Thrilla in Manila. “Sit down son, it’s all over. No one will ever forget what you did here today.”
Futch, in the most brutal of sports during the most brutal of fights, showed the kind of care the North Carolina coaching staff should have demonstrated. Davis seems like an excellent coach, with a heart as big as Carolina itself. But he had a responsibility to make sure Manek was checked for a concussion, to sit Johnson for the rest of the game, and to not let Bacot imperil an NBA future by playing on a bum ankle.
Yes, I get it. This is the finals, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Yes, this multibillion-dollar tournament is a far cry from “amateurism.” It’s big business, and we all know it. But to the youths leaving all the blood, sweat, tears, and other fluids on the court, this is not a paid endeavor. More needed to be done to protect them from themselves. Failure to do so, was indeed, madness.