March Madness is about much more than 68 teams playing basketball to vie for a stupid trophy and bragging rights. It’s one of the largest spectacles in which the power of sports reveals more than just athletic ability.  

Over the years, we’ve seen stories of underdogs overcoming obstacles, coaches and players displaying the power of mentorship and, weirdly, how crazy the hoopla around college sports has become. We live in a country where the passion for college athletics is intense, but sometimes goes too far.

I was reading online the other day about a player from Vanderbilt who didn’t play as well as he usually does. The author posited that he — singlehandedly — potentially caused his team to lose its play-in game. It’s odd to me that we live in a society where college students, many of them my age, are criticized and bear the burden of ridicule if they don’t perform well.

I’m part of it too; I’ve written articles about the performance of athletes and how that relates to team success, and there’s room for that. For now, I’m playing devil’s advocate by thinking about how it would feel to read critiques of your ability every day. But I want to remember from now on, before I get angry over a player’s shot selection, that they’re just like me — a 20-something year old just living life.

Me critiquing an athlete’s layup, for example, is like someone critiquing my penmanship when I take notes. It’s uncalled for, and frankly, I don’t know what I’m talking about, because the athlete has spent thousands of hours in the gym, not me.

I’ll probably gripe to my friends about something going against my wishes during the tournament, but I’ll try to hold my tongue and remind myself that the people on the court are students and amateurs. Though they may receive full rides, they don’t get paid. Most of them won’t play professionally. But they have spent countless hours with everyone in their ears — parents, coaches, teammates, die-hard fans.

For those reading this as college students, you know how hard it is to juggle school and extracurricular activities. Imagine having to travel every week, rising early every morning and still having to turn all your work in on time. Let’s give these guys a break sometimes.

For those who are older and critical, remember that these are college students trying their best. Mistakes happen. Humans are fallible. And there are more things to worry about than the result of a game.

I bet the athletes who will play face a lot of anxiety about playing up to expectations while being under the spotlight. It takes a lot of guts to be able to rise above the pressure. And criticism follows athletes for years. Fab Five member Chris Webber still gets patronized for calling a timeout in the NCAA Tournament when he had none, causing Michigan to lose the game.

I get that people can have huge attachments to their teams. I’ve been engrossed with sports culture my entire life, so I understand the passion. But verbally attacking an amateur, even when they can’t hear you, isn’t acceptable. It’s essentially continuing to perpetuate the ridicule of young adults. It’s even more profound to see how much more hate is out in the open because of social media.

Instead of breaking players down, it would be great to see them be built up. The most beautiful moments in sports are when the hate tweets and death threats are overshadowed by support and thankfulness when someone messes up.

Sometimes the relationship to athletes is blurred, as some see them as characters in games instead of human beings. They have emotions and probably don’t like to see negative reactions in the news and their social media notifications, just like everyone else. It would be better for everyone if people left them alone or viewed them as someone they know and love and want to succeed.

There are many debates about how to combat the ridicule and how to compensate for the pressure and amount of time that college athletes spend practicing. I believe, at least, that college athletes should be more humanized. The coverage shouldn’t be totally revamped, but an attitude of empathy is a good start to possibly taking some of the pressure off them.

Chris Crowder can be reached at ccrowd@umich.edu.

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