Over many years of watching the NCAA men’s basketball tournaments, one thing that I, and many others, have looked forward to is the video montage broadcast at the end of CBS’s coverage of the championship game, set to the song “One Shining Moment”. The montage celebrates not only great basketball, but also the range of male emotional expression in sport. Images of young men bursting with joy over a victory and crying in agony over defeat have long been a staple of this video memory of the tournament. Quite honestly, this video has often brought a tear to my eye as I connected to these young men’s emotions. However, it is not my reaction to the video that is notable, but rather the celebration of men’s emotions that is of interest.
When it comes to expressing our emotions, American society has long maintained an expectation that men refrain from displaying any emotion other than anger. Emotional displays can be seen as a sign of weakness, and young men are subjected to insults for such displays. In particular, men and boys are traditionally expected to be tough and not to cry. These expectations have been referred to by researchers studying a sports context (mixed martial arts fighting) as “managing emotional manhood”. While this limited emotional expression for men is true in most areas of social life, we see an exception in NCAA March Madness. The allowable range of male emotional expression in this tournament is simply far greater, including both positive and negative emotions. The montage aired at the end of the tournament includes examples of both joyful celebration and images of young men crying (or at times hiding their heads while they cry). What makes the NCAA men’s basketball tournament so notable is that we openly acknowledge and even appreciate the emotions and emotional displays of these young men.
This celebration of emotions stands in stark contrast to the display of masculinity inherent in men’s basketball. Basketball is a contact sport with considerable emphasis on strength, speed and power. The players are expected to be aggressive on the court and this reflects socialization into the sport. Basketball celebrates toughness and aggression and even, at times, tolerates apparently deliberate acts of violence. Considerable debate emerged this season over the penalty levied against Grayson Allen of Duke after he deliberately tripped an opponent during a game (and not for the first time). While the punishment was initially presented as an indefinite suspension, Allen ultimately was only suspended for one game by Duke. Finding the line between appropriately aggressive behavior and dangerously aggressive behavior can be difficult in a sport that expects aggression. In such a sport, it would seem that emotional displays should be centered around aggression, anger, and defeating one’s opponent, and indeed, there are many such displays.
Thus, it is not surprising that the video montage of March Madness recognizes expressions of victory and the emotional high that comes with it. Showing happiness over a victory reflects dominance over an opponent, which is consonant with boys’ emotional socialization in sports. But, here we also see the emotional lows of sadness openly acknowledged and even honored. Indeed, reviewing videos from previous tournaments shows countless examples of young men crying bent over in defeat, expressing their extreme sadness at their team’s loss. A quick review of the most recent montage from 2016 found at least 10 instances of images of young men in tears or hanging their heads in sadness over losing.
While we consider why such disparate emotional displays coexist in March Madness, we need to think about what sadness means in this instance. One possibility is that we recognize emotional expression as an indication of a player’s investment in the game. They would not get so emotional if they had not put all their effort into what they were doing. We worry about how players manage emotions during the game because of fears that their performance might suffer if they are too emotional, but we appreciate the emotional displays once the contest has ended. We take it as a sign that they “left it all on the floor.”
As the lyrics of the song for the NCAA tournament, One Shining Moment, say, “[that] one shining moment you reached deep inside, one shining moment, you knew you were alive”. For all the shining moments in this tournament, we connect to these young men, we celebrate their highs and even appreciate their lows, but then we seem to expect men to return to limiting their displays of emotions in the other areas of their lives. The question becomes, why do we celebrate men’s investment in sports and the emotional expression that results from that investment, but not similarly celebrate such displays of emotion in the other areas of their lives?
Gretchen Peterson is Professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Memphis. Her research connects the sociology of sports with social psychology. She is author of a chapter on “Sports and Emotions” in the Handbook of the Sociology of Emotions, Volume II (Springer, 2014).