TIME Sports

No Cheers for Indiana Going Into the Final Four

Demonstrators gather outside the City County Building in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 30, 2015.
Aaron P. Bernstein—Getty Images Demonstrators gather outside the City County Building in Indianapolis, Indiana on March 30, 2015.

Host city Indianapolis is stealing the spotlight, thanks to the state's controversial new legislation on religious freedom

This week, sports fans will turn their eyes towards Indianapolis and what promises to be a memorable Final Four. Kentucky is going for a perfect season—for men’s college hoops, it would be the first in almost 40 years. Sharpshooting Wisconsin, led by All-American and possible national player of the year Frank “the Tank” Kaminsky, will try to end the Wildcats’ winning streak in one national semifinal. In the other semi, the biggest name in college basketball—Duke—faces off against Final Four regular Michigan State. This year’s event features star players (Kaminsky, Karl-Anthony Towns, Jahlil Okafor) and brand-name coaches (Coach K, John Calipari, Tom Izzo). It’s a dream showcase for the NCAA.

Too bad all anyone can talk about is Indiana.

No, not the Hoosier hoops program: IU left the Big Dance long ago. Indiana—more specifically Indianapolis, the Final Four host city—is stealing the spotlight, thanks to controversial new legislation that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last week. Critics of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) say the law gives businesses license to discriminate against LGBT residents, in the name of religious freedom. Indiana is the 20th state to pass a RFRA, but a) unlike some other states, Indiana does not specifically protect the LGBT population from discrimination elsewhere in the state code; b) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law in 2015, an era in which Americans have become much more accepting of gay people, and in which same-sex marriage could become the law of the land (15 states passed these laws between 1993 and 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures) and c) Indiana is the only state to pass such a law just days before a mass American cultural tradition plays out in its largest, most important city.

Final Four hosts cities are like the refs. If they’re the topic of conversation, something must have gone terribly wrong.

MORE: Uproar Over Religious Freedom Law Trips Up Indiana’s Governor

Indianapolis is in a particularly rough spot. Any economist will tell you that sports is usually an ineffective development tool. But if any city has successfully bet on sports to lift its fortunes, it’s Indy. Back in the 1960s, the most exciting things going on in its desolate downtown was the pigeon shooting—citizens would spray bullets on Sundays to control the population. “We were India-no-place,” Indy Mayor Greg Ballard tells TIME.

To revitalize “Naptown,” business and government leaders settled on a sports strategy: The city would try to lure teams and major international events. First, a downtown arena, home to the Indiana Pacers, opened in 1974. The Indiana Sports Corp. became the first non-profit commission in the U.S. dedicated to recruiting and managing sports events. The city built the Hoosier Dome—which helped attract the Colts from Baltimore in 1984—and invested in track and field, swimming and cycling facilities to host the 1982 National Sports Festival and 1987 Pan Am Games. The national governing bodies for track and field, swimming and gymnastics all settled in Indianapolis. Hotels and office buildings sprouted. In 1987, National Geographic called Indianapolis “The Cinderella of the Rustbelt.” The NCAA moved its headquarters to Indianapolis in 1999. The city has hosted more men’s Final Fours—six, including this one—over the past 25 years than any other in the country. The 2012 Super Bowl was a success. And overall, Indy’s compact downtown makes it an ideal setting for big-time events.

“It’s fair to say that this city was built on sports,” says Chris Gahl, vice president of marketing & communications for Visit Indy, a promotional arm. So if sports leagues and teams start boycotting the city, because they don’t want to associate with what they see as a discriminatory law, they can tear it apart. “I certainly can’t endorse something that in principal is contrary to the value or our organization, and mine and my family’s personal values,” says USA Track and Field CEO Max Siegel, who is from Indianapolis. “As long as anti-gay legislation exists in any state, I strongly believe big events such as the Final Four and Super Bowl should not be held in those states’ cities,” Charles Barkley said in a statement.

MORE: What You Need to Know About Indiana’s Controversial Religious Objections Law

This year’s Final Four is projected to generate $70.8 million in direct visitor spending, according to Visit Indy. The 2010 Final Four, won by Duke, brought in $50 million. According to research firm Rockport Analytics, the 2012 Super Bowl contributed nearly $280 million to the local economy and supported nearly 4,700 jobs. An online petition calling on the Big Ten conference to move its championship football game, which contributed $16 million in direct visitor spending to Indianapolis in 2014, out of the city collected thousands of signatures.

The NCAA, which has some 500 employees at its Indy headquarters, took a notably strong stand against the law. “Anything that could potentially allow for discrimination and works in a way that is inconsistent with our values for inclusion is something we are very concerned about,” NCAA President Mark Emmert told ESPN on Monday. “We have to say, what do we do if this law goes into effect in July, and what’s our relationship with the state of Indiana going to be.” Pence has done the impossible: Won the NCAA widespread kudos.

This kind of talk has Ballard, the Indy mayor, very concerned. “This is very much a burgeoning convention setting, and sports event place,” says Ballard, who like the Governor is a Republican. “A lot of jobs depend on it, and the hospitality industry is huge here, just because of the sports and the convention business.” The NFL, for example, could move its annual scouting combine out of Indianapolis. “It’s very difficult for us right now,” says Ballard, who agrees that Pence’s timing was terrible. In an executive order released Monday, Ballard called on state lawmakers and the Governor to “expressly add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in state law.”

“They have to correct this, and they have to correct it quickly,” Ballard tells TIME. “They have to make it very, very clear that discrimination is not acceptable anywhere, and that services and facilities are open to everybody in the state of Indiana.” Without such action, Indiana might find itself out of the game.

Read next: The Debate Over What Indiana’s Religious Freedom Act Is Really About

TIME portfolio

Meet America’s First Video Game Varsity Athletes

The newest route to college is through a video game

Correction appended, March 27, 2015

Parents who think that video games are an academic distraction, take heart: pounding on the controller can now help pay for college.

Last fall, Robert Morris University in Chicago became the first college in the US to make competitive gaming ­ or “e-sports” ­ a varsity sport, and offer athletic scholarships for players. “My parents were always telling me to get off the Xbox,” says Jonathan Lindahl, a freshman e-sports player at Robert Morris. “So I’m really rubbing it in their faces.”

At Robert Morris, video game scholarships can be worth up to half of tuition and housing, or $19,000. What’s more, since the NCAA doesn’t regulate e-sports, they’re not bound by the rules of amateurism. A couple of Robert Morris players, for example, recently played in a semi-pro tournament and each earned around $1,000. Want to get paid as a college athlete? Stay on the Xbox.

Robert Morris spent $100,000 ­and received help from video game sponsors ­ to retrofit a classroom into a full-fledged gaming hub with hi-tech monitors, headsets, and chairs. The players look a bit like fighter pilots, and play League of Legends, a five-on-five battle game popular among college students. The top Robert Morris team has qualified for Sweet 16 of the North American Collegiate Championship (NACC), which starts on March 28: traditional sports powers like Michigan, Georgia Tech, Texas A&M are also in the mix. The “Final Four” will be held in Los Angeles in early May. Each member of the winning team will receive $30,000 in scholarship money.

A sure sign that college video games are like traditional sports: one member of the Robert Morris squad, freshman Adrian Ma, 18. left the school in November to join a pro team. “The opportunity was too good to pass up,” says Ma. A second school, the University of Pikeville in Kentucky, will offer e-sports scholarships this fall. For gamers, March Madness has indeed arrived.

Read the full story, The Varsity Sport of the Virtual World, in the latest issue of TIME magazine and on TIME.com.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the student in slide 9. His name is Zixing Jie.

TIME NFL

Chris Borland Is the New Model NFL Player

San Francisco 49ers v New York Giants
Michael Zagaris—Getty Images Chris Borland #50 of the San Francisco 49ers tackles Odell Beckham Jr.of the New York Giants during the game at Metlife Stadium on November 16, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey.

The 49ers linebacker, who just finished an excellent rookie year and was looking at possible NFL stardom, retires in fear of brain injuries. Is this the new football blueprint?

Chris Borland had at least five more lucrative years in him, maybe more. This was going to be his peak earning period. But he decided the rest of his life was worth more.

Borland, a San Francisco 49ers linebacker, just finished a productive rookie year, and was set to take on a bigger role with the team after fellow linebacker Patrick Willis, 30, announced his retirement last week. Willis, bothered by foot injuries, surprised many by leaving the game in his prime. But at least he had a prime. Borland, 24, is also retiring, sacrificing millions to preserve his brain.

It’s a newsworthy decision, but not all that shocking, given the rationale behind it. The brain science becomes more daunting year-by-year: by playing NFL football, you’re risking the quality of your life. A Borland was going to come along at some point: a promising player quitting, before he really gets started.

Is this a bit of a nightmare for the NFL? Sure. The league keeps losing PR battles; Borland’s retirement condemns the game. Yes, four NFL players age 30 or younger have retired during the past week. But don’t expect a flood of players to hand in their helmets. A decade ago, we weren’t even talking about the long-term dangers of concussions. A decade later, a young player staves off the damage. A decade from now? There will be other Borlands. Enough to cripple the league? Doubtful. Many, many decades from now? That’s another story. Fewer young kids are playing tackle football. The trends aren’t good.

Borland, who according to ESPN Stats & Information led the NFL in tackles from Weeks 7-15, when he filled in for Willis as a starter, did the research. He thought he sustained a concussion in training camp, but played through it, because he felt like that’s what he’d have to do to make the team. He called on concussion researchers to get the facts. Borland’s retired, but let’s see if he actually stays on the sidelines. At 24, he can always change his mind. If he follows through on his plan to go back to school and chase a career in sports management, and has a happy, successful life without football … Chris Borland might be the model NFL player, after playing a single season in the NFL.

TIME

Here’s Who Wins March Madness in the Classroom

A complete ranking of the NCAA basketball tournament field by academic success and graduation rates instead of wins and losses

Davidson’s men’s basketball team has won accolades this year for defying expectations on the court, finishing in first place in their inaugural season in the Atlantic 10 after being picked 12th, out of 14 teams, in the preseason poll. The Wildcats run an efficient, aesthetically pleasing offense, a welcome contrast to an otherwise rough college basketball season, where scoring was near all-time lows.

Basketball success is not new to the 1,850 student liberal arts college in North Carolina: Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry is a former Wildcat. Nor is academic achievement: Woodrow Wilson is another prominent alum. Now, the two have come together: Davidson is the academic champion of the 2015 NCAA tournament.

According to new rankings generated by the New America, a non-partisan Washington, D.C. think tank, for all 68 teams in the tournament–and shared exclusively with TIME — Davidson cuts down the proverbial nets. Here’s how: we matched teams up in the classroom, using the tournament brackets to determine the games. If the on-court bracket results mimicked academic performance, the Final Four would look like this: Davidson wins the South, Maryland comes out of the Midwest, Baylor takes the West and Dayton wins the East. Davidson knocks off Baylor in one national semifinal. Maryland knocks off Dayton in the other semi, with Davidson taking the title game.

The full bracket is below.

 

The formula for New America’s March Madness mimics that of its College Football Playoff rankings released in December (TCU won that title). The base measure is a school’s most recent men’s basketball “Graduation Success Rate,” a figure measured by the NCAA that doesn’t dock schools for having players who transfer or go pro before graduating–as long as those players leave in good academic standing. The higher the school’s graduation success rate, the higher they start out in New America’s rankings. New America, however, did subtract points from schools that graduate men’s basketball players at a much different rate than the overall men’s graduation rate at the school. To compare students to athletes, New America used federal graduation rates, which take a cohort of students from 2004-2007, and measured if they graduated within six years. Even if a school graduated basketball players at higher rates than the overall male student population, the difference was counted as a penalty against schools that have low overall male graduation rates.

One important note: Harvard, the Ivy League champion, was excluded from the rankings because the Ivy League does not report federal graduation rates for athletes. So the University of North Carolina, Harvard’s first round opponent, moves on. Harvard was one of 13 schools, including Davidson, Maryland, Notre Dame, Butler and Dayton, that reported a perfect graduation success rate for basketball players.

Indiana was the easiest out, finishing last in New America’s rankings. Hoosier basketball players graduated at an 8% federal rate, according to the most recent numbers, fare below the overall male student graduation rate of 72%. That discrepancy killed their score. Indiana basketball spokesman J.D. Campbell points out that current coach Tom Crean was hired in April 2008, after the 2004-2007 cohort captured by the federal rate enrolled in the school. Indiana’s men’s basketball team does have a perfect Academic Progress Rate, an NCAA metric that measures the academic eligibility of current players, and Campbell says that every Crean recruit that hasn’t transferred or left early for the NBA has graduated (one of Indiana’s three early entries to the NBA, Victor Oladipo of the Orlando Magic, graduated in three years).

To see how the whole field stacks up, check out these rankings.

Read next: The Simple Free Hack to Watch NCAA March Madness Without a Cable Bill

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TIME College Basketball

College Basketball Has Lost Its Soul

Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament - VCU v Richmond
Alex Goodlett—Getty Images The Richmond Spiders play the Virginia Commonwealth Rams during a quarterfinal game in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in Brooklyn.

Attendance and ratings are down. Scoring is at historic lows. Arenas are antiseptic. Why is the sport so troubled?

What are we doing here?

It’s Friday afternoon in Brooklyn, just days before the annual “Selection Sunday” that will decide the layout of the NCAA tournament. The Barclays Center, home of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, is hosting the conference tournament quarterfinals of the Atlantic 10, a hoop-centric group of schools whose core geographical imprint stretches from Philadelphia, through Washington, D.C. down to Richmond, Virginia, while hitting a few places in the midwest: Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Dayton. Yet the Atlantic 10 hosts its conference tournament in New York City, home to Fordham University—one of the league’s northern outliers and worst basketball teams.

Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the University of Richmond, two schools separated by five miles in the Virginia capital, are playing a tight, tough game, which VCU will eventually win, 70-67. But the whole thing still feels a bit out of place. The Atlantic 10 moved its tournament to Brooklyn back in 2013 because, more than anything, college athletic conferences have become marketing entities. Let’s bring the show to the big city, baby, no matter the convenience for the “student-athletes,” whose time spent traveling extra miles could be spent, you know, studying.

This rivalry game sparked some electricity. Fans of VCU, which made a surprising run to the Final Four back in 2011, travel well, and as VCU finishes off the Spiders, the place is loud and moderately rocking. Still, the building is only a little more than a third full, according to the official attendance figures. Empty seats dot prime areas behind the basket. Most of the fans are wearing yellow (for VCU) or red (for Richmond), but very few locals seem to be there. The Big Apple hasn’t exactly caught A-10 fever.

Which comes as no shock. Across the country, people seem to be falling out of love with college basketball. Attendance for Division I men’s games has fallen for seven straight seasons, according to the Associated Press. TV ratings for CBS and ESPN are down.

A well-documented drop in scoring, which is near historically low levels, has been blamed for college basketball’s struggles. Ugly play has certainly contributed. Controlling coaches drain the fun and flow out of the game. Players are stronger—and more physical, which tends to hurt, more than help, offense. Technology has made scouting an opponent’s tendencies easier. When you know what your foe is about to do, he’s easier to defend.

These trends have surely contributed to college basketball’s struggles. So have some forces beyond the sport’s control. More than ever, Americans want appointment television, whether it’s a must-see football game or even an international soccer game we can all chirp about on Twitter, or a favorite show on the DVR. We have so many entertainment options: Our investment in a two-hour regular season college basketball game better pay off. Too often, it doesn’t.

In football, the regular season games really matter. In baseball, a fraction of the teams make the post-season, so even the early April games have something at stake. In college basketball, if teams struggle in the regular season, they can earn a March Madness spot by doing well in a conference tournament. Does any one regular season game really matter that much?

True, you can say the same thing about NBA regular season games. But if you like basketball, and can choose between watching the best players in the world in the NBA, or a bunch of college kids throwing up bricks and college coaches calling a million timeouts, and calling for a million fouls at the end of close games… it’s an easy call.

When pitted against football, college hoops is almost helpless. College football is a juggernaut, and college basketball starts its season in mid-November—just as the playoff and bowl chases are coming down the stretch. Into December and through the Super Bowl, the NFL is going strong. Even the NFL off-season overshadows college hoops. This past week, major free agent moves—and in particular, coach Chip Kelly’s casino gambling with the future of the Philadelphia Eagles—stole tons of attention from conference basketball tournaments.

College basketball is in danger of becoming a one-month sport, capturing buzz only during March Madness. The sport’s relevance problem even sparked Pac-12 deputy commissioner Jamie Zaninovich to propose on SI.com that the start of the regular season be pushed back to mid-December, and the Final Four to take place in early May—to help college basketball escape football’s shadow.

Officials can tinker with the game. But some of the optics of this week’s conference tournaments also suggest that, because schools have been chasing the lushest revenue streams, the sport has also just lost its way. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden in New York City, for example, Butler, from Indianapolis, and Xavier, from Cincinnati, met in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament. Why are schools from two Midwestern cities, connected by I-74 through Indiana, playing in New York? As part of something with “East” in the name?

All the conference reshuffling of the past few years destroyed many regional rivalries. Out of this rubble rose a new entity called American Athletic Conference (AAC). ESPN showed highlights from an exciting AAC quarterfinal game between East Carolina and the University of Central Florida that went into overtime. East Carolina won 81-80. The game was played in Hartford, Conn. On TV, the stands looked empty.

College hoops is still thriving in many places. And as we gear up for Sunday night’s selection show, a drab regular season will be forgotten. We’ll fill out our March Madness brackets, root for Cinderella, see if Kentucky can become the first team to finish undefeated in almost 40 years. It’ll be a blast.

But the question is still worth asking: What are we doing here?

Read next: The Case for Sports Gambling in America

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TIME College Basketball

Every College Coach Should Aspire to Be Like Dean Smith

The North Carolina legend proved you can win with class

Too often, the cult of the college coach is way too uncomfortable. These men are campus emperors, sometimes the highest-paid public employees in their entire state. They are lavished with millions, all because their unpaid workforce can make clutch jumpers or bone-crushing tackles. On the back of teenaged athletic success, they are held up as unquestioned leaders of young men, worthy of boardroom worship. Coach can teach your company a thing or two about management, so write him a lecture circuit check.

Winning breeds a fog where all flaws are forgiven. Smart, driven, charismatic coaches deserve our respect, but not outright adulation. We make simply make too much of college coaches.

Dean Smith, however, always seemed like the exception.

Smith, the legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach who died on Feb. 7, at 83, wasn’t perfect. But he never carried himself like he was. Raised in Emporia, Kansas by Baptist schoolteachers, Smith didn’t have a slick bone in his body. “We’d all joke around and say, If I had the kind of juice Coach Smith did, I’d use it a lot differently,” says former North Carolina player King Rice, who played for Smith from 1987-1991. “I wouldn’t be that humble.”

Unfailingly polite, with a gift for remembering the names of everyone in his universe–the managers and support staff as well as the Michael Jordans and James Worthys—Smith was beset by no scandal. He never threw a chair, or cheated. His players graduated.

The main criticism against Smith was that the “Carolina Way,” which required shared sacrifice, stifled the individual brilliance of his players. Only Dean Smith, goes the joke, held Michael Jordan to under 20 points per game. But Carolina had the last laugh, because the Tar Heels were prodigious winners. In 1997, Smith retired with 879 wins, the most in Division 1 men’s basketball history at the time. He made 11 Final Four appearances, and won two national championships.

His players could have compiled more impressive individual statistics at other schools. But college is supposed to prepare you for the real world. No players were more prepped for the NBA than Smith’s. “He taught you everything — shooting, passing, positional defense,” says former North Carolina star Mike O’Koren, who spent eight seasons in the NBA from 1980-1988. “He never limited what he would teach you because of your size or anything.” O’Koren remembers getting the ball on a fast break during his freshman season, and hitting an open jump shot. A few possessions later, he took a similar shot — and missed with the defense in his face. The horn blared, and O’Koren was out of the game. “I don’t know about that shot Mike,” Smith said to O’Koren, now an assistant at Rutgers. “Coach, I was feeling it,” O’Koren replied. Smith: “Well, why don’t you go feel the bench now.”

Smith alums thrived in the NBA: Jordan, Worthy, Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, Charlie Scott, Walter Davis, Phil Ford, Kenny Smith, Mitch Kupchak, Brad Daugherty, George Lynch, Rick Fox, Jerry Stackhouse, Rahsheed Wallace, Vince Carter, Sam Perkins, Bobby Jones, Antawn Jamison, to name a few. No less than Jordan cherished Smith’s approach. “Other than my parents, no one had a bigger influence on my life than Coach Smith,” Jordan said. “He was more than a coach – he was my mentor, my teacher, my second father.”

Smith took stands, especially on racial integration. He helped an African-American graduate student at North Carolina buy a home in an all-white neighborhood. He helped integrate a Chapel Hill restaurant. Smith recruited North Carolina’s first African-American scholarship athlete, Charlie Scott, in 1966. In 2013, Smith received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor. President Obama praised Smith for preaching unselfishness on the court. “We also honor,” Obama said, “his courage in helping change our country.”

Rice, now the head basketball coach at Monmouth University, remembers Smith telling his players they should never cut in line in the cafeteria, just because they were big shots on campus. “He never let our heads get too big,” Rice says. “He constantly reminded us that there were people doing a lot more impressive and important things than playing basketball.” Rice says he had struggles with drinking and his temper while on campus, but that Smith refused to give up on him when he easily could have, given all the other talent on the team. “He would always give me advice, and say, “King, this isn’t what’s best for Carolina basketball,” Rice says. “This is what’s best for you. Not every coach does that. It was like all of us were his sons.”

“He loved his players, he really, really did,” says O’Koren.”And we loved him.”

 

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