Sorry, but college basketball teams can't cure economic woes   

Updated: April 7, 2009

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North Carolina dismantled Michigan State in the NCAA championship game Monday night. The disparity in talent -- roughly varsity verus JV -- made the outcome academic and the game one of the worst and least competitive championship games in recent memory, in any sport.

Korie Lucious and Marquise Gray

AP Photo/Eric Gay

Don't worry guys, you didn't really let your home state down.

But it's not about basketball. As we repeatedly were told throughout Michigan State's run, this is about something bigger than basketball. This is about the power of sports to transform and divert, to uplift and embolden. This was about how the Spartans could hoist the citizens of their downtrodden state -- this tourney marked a huge comeback for the word "downtrodden" -- on their collective back and make them forget about their horrible economic circumstances.

With that as the constant backdrop, Monday's blowout raises an interesting question: Does the loss constitute a huge letdown for their downtrodden state?

It doesn't, of course, any more than a Spartans win would have constituted a huge uplift for their downtrodden state. This was another unfortunate case of inflating the significance of an event to fit a story line. It's a tired story line, and a lazy one, but since it was about the only one we had, we went with it -- hard.

Besides, as story lines go, it beats just standing around saying how much better North Carolina is than everybody else in the country. That was October's story line, and we beat that one senseless, too, before we tired of it.

And yes, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Yes, the Spartans are predominantly from their home state. Yes, a case could be made that people in lousy economic circumstances can derive some pleasure and temporary respite by rooting for a local or semi-local basketball team.

But that's it. It doesn't travel any farther than that. Countless writers and broadcasters tried to tell us that a national championship could provide some sort of uplift for the state. That Tom Izzo's team, with its many admirable traits -- desire, hustle, teamwork -- could convey its success to the rest of the state. Some even suggested General Motors could learn a thing or two from a group of young men who happen to also be playing on the state's dime (an athletic scholarship, after all, is state-funded).

It all sounds good, and for the most part, nobody questions it. But the overheated idea that a basketball team can bring a depressed community out of anything diminishes the dire situations in which many people find themselves. It's become part of the lore of sports -- the team that rallies the community in hard times and plays a role, even a small role, in making the people feel better about themselves.

But when it's over, win or lose, nothing changes. The idea that people somehow lose themselves and their troubles for those beatific moments when a team is pursuing a championship is purely a media construct. The troubles are there before, during and after the games, and to minimize those troubles by suggesting they can be washed away by the cleansing waters of (mostly) teenage athletic success is an insult.

Tom Izzo

AP Photo/Eric Gay

There was only so much Tom Izzo could do -- his team was overmatched.

(By the way, none of the people supposedly being uplifted by the feats of the Spartans could afford to attend the game in their home state. There's no room for the downtrodden at the Final Four, no matter the venue. Exorbitant ticket prices took care of that long ago.)

It's nothing against Michigan State, or Izzo, who genuinely seems to understand the limited role his team plays in the bigger picture. (There was the "We're carrying them on our shoulders because we care and it's our state" comment, but it worked in the context.) But if you lose your job, and if your house and half of your neighbors' houses are in danger of being foreclosed, and one of those neighbors happens to win the lottery, does that do anything to lift you out of your downtrodden state? At best, it makes you happy for your neighbor as you wave at him following the moving van out of the neighborhood. At worst, it makes you spend your limited funds on lottery tickets.

The unemployment rate in Michigan for February was 12 percent. The unemployment rate nationally hit 8.5 percent in March. Mass murders and cop killings, many of them rooted in economic hopelessness, have become frighteningly common. People on the edge are going over it.

It sounds good to say a college basketball team can soothe the wounds of an entire state. Sounds good until you think about it, and then it sounds hollow and insignificant. Again, nothing against Michigan State, but it's more realistic to ask the Spartans to be a temporary diversion. They managed that much.

ESPN The Magazine senior writer Tim Keown co-wrote Josh Hamilton's autobiography, "Beyond Belief: Finding the Strength to Come Back," which is available on Amazon.com. Sound off to Tim here.


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