I adore March Madness. But one thing I love about the tournament also makes me squirm: Year after year, it proves that boys do cry. A lot.
As a mother of three sons, I’m familiar with young men’s tears – and they’re never easy to watch. I’ve seen my sons’ eyes moisten over tough personal losses, poignant (and usually sports-related) movies and, in my cockiest kid’s case, the realization that our nation had elected a black man as president. Like most youths, my boys despised being caught crying. Though I was grateful for the sensitivity their tears suggested, I felt their pain.
March Madness multiplies that agony by 68 teams of 12 players or more. Though athletes routinely snivel during competitions as diverse as the Super Bowl and the Olympics, I can’t think of another sporting event that shows as many tough, macho and presumably popular male competitors sobbing.
Though a few ballplayers cry for joy after a victory, more whimper out of misery over losing. Some just-eliminated players drape towels or jerseys over their faces to hide the waterworks. But a surprising number just go with it, letting their faces crumple before millions on national TV. For fans, it can be both excruciating and inspiring to watch. It’s difficult to see any creature in pain.
This year, we saw Arizona point guard T.J. McConnell dabbing his wide, blue eyes during a news conference after his team’s Elite Eight loss to Wisconsin; he was describing his tearful apology to coach Sean Miller for failing to lead his Wildcats to the Final Four. “That guy right there’s like my dad,” he explained.
A week earlier, a player’s actual father – Georgia State coach Ron Hunter – created a media sensation by falling off his chair after son R.J. hit a clutch three-pointer, catapulting his 14th-seed Panthers to victory over three-seeded Baylor. After losing to Xavier in the next round, Coach Hunter wept unashamedly during the postgame conference, at which he blurted about the son seated next to him, “I love this kid,” causing R.J. to well up, too.
Blame cultural norms for such scenes being as painful as they are heartwarming. Boys are taught early that sobbing is for babies and that men who cry are soft. Countless women grow up believing it, too. We seem to judge women less for crying, while the only arenas in which men receive full weeping rights are sporting events and funerals.
For many college hoopsters – especially seniors with no NBA prospects – losing during March Madness is like a funeral. It’s the all-too-public burial of their college hoops careers; their childhood goals; and the identity, camaraderie and arduous but rewarding physical effort that team play provides. Lose a single game in this one-and-done tournament, and life as you knew it is over.
You don’t have to play for a school team to feel that passion. My middle son, Darrell, played on rec and hoop-it-up teams and recalls his eyes moistening after several hard-fought battles. Now he has nothing but admiration for NCAA weepers. “People who say ‘It’s just a game’ don’t know sports,” he says. “How many of those kids has sports saved, where it was ‘do this or do drugs?’ How many had mothers driving them three hours to take them to practices or games? They cry because it means everything. A (player) who’s crying is really hurting.”
I’m glad that countless other March Madness-loving ballers have something in their lives they feel okay crying over.
Donna Britt is a former columnist for The Washington Post.