March 19, 2007

Cinderella Nation Revisited

NOTE: This column references last year's NCAA Tournament column, available here.

Can we be a Cinderalla nation without a Cinderella?

That is the question I’m left pondering after a weekend of college basketball without a major upset. Last year, I wrote that the NCAA tournament gives us the most quintessential American tale – the Cinderella story – year after year. With the apparently level playing field in the tournament, any team could wear a glass slipper for a few weeks in March.

The results on the court bore out my theory – a quarter of the teams that won their first round games were double-digit seeds. Two double-digit seeds and five teams seeded worse than 6 survived the first weekend into the Sweet Sixteen. And the George Mason Patriots, an 11 seed from the unheard-of Colonial Athletic Association, knocked off three Goliaths on their way to the most improbable Final Four berth ever.

Last year’s results were so surprising that even as they underscored the first half of my theory – anything can happen – they cast doubt on the second half – but it usually doesn’t. The tournament, like the American dream it mimics, is not as fair as it seems, I wrote. But after George Mason, I began to wonder if maybe the playing field of the tournament was level after all.

Last year’s madness seemed to usher in the postmodern era for college basketball where conference affiliation, star players, and Hall of Fame coaches no longer mattered. Parity was the buzz word and an avalanche of upsets was predicted for this year’s tournament.

In short, the avalanche hasn’t happened. Of the forty-eight games played so far in this year’s tournament, only four qualify as genuine upsets. Only two-double digit seeds got through the first round and both were bounced in the second. Only two of the Sweet Sixteen is seeded 6 or worse. All four #1s, three #2s, and three #3s are still in.

All of which leaves us without a true Cinderella. The lowest seed remaining, #7 UNLV, has a championship banner from 1990. The two teams from so-called mid-major conferences, Butler and Southern Illinois, spent the majority of the season in the top 25 and earned good seeds. Like it or not, teams like Butler, Southern Illinois, and Gonzaga are becoming Goliaths of their own, albeit leaner ones.

Ironically, the Cinderella story from this year’s tournament may be predictability itself. Over the years, the tournament has captured our national attention by being unpredictable. In the wake of George Mason’s bracket-busting run last year, the only thing no one expected this year was exactly what we got – top seed domination. In the context of March Madness, what’s more unpredictable than predictability?

This development should be welcomed by all who love college basketball. We seemed headed to an era where anything really could happen, rendering the label of underdog irrelevant. How much of a fairy tale is it if Cinderella gets the prince every year?

This year’s tournament has restored order to the college basketball universe. At least until next year when it can be turned on its head once again. See you in March 2008.

March 05, 2007

Leadership Across the Color Line

It has been nearly a century and a half since the peculiar institution that was slavery was outlawed in the United States, yet the legacy of racial issues born by slavery continues to affect modern politics and leadership. Just last week, we learned that the ancestors of a preeminent African American leader (Al Sharpton) were at one point owned by the ancestors of a preeminent segregationist politician (Strom Thurmond), and it turns out that ancestors of Barack Obama’s white mother once owned slaves.

Against the backdrop of these revelations, a bill was recently introduced in Congress seeking an apology on behalf of the United States government for slavery and the Jim Crow segregation that followed it. Although the bill raises all sorts of interesting questions on its own, one of the more noteworthy aspects of it is that it was offered by a white congressman.

Specifically, the bill was introduced by Steve Cohen, a freshman representative and the first white congressman from majority-black Memphis in three decades. Cohen arrived in Washington only after defeating more than a half dozen African American candidates in a primary where some of his opponents suggested that he was unqualified to represent Memphis because of his race. The consensus is that Cohen is likely to face an African American candidate in 2008 with more unified support, giving him two years to prove to any suspicious black constituents that he can vigorously represent this district despite the color of his skin.

Ultimately, those two years will provide Cohen’s answer to the question of how a white person can effectively represent a majority-black district. This question, however, is really part of a larger question about leadership in America. Do Americans want a leader who simply looks like them or one who is able to understand their concerns regardless of what that leader looks like? Will Americans tolerate a leader who is not personally appealing if that leader proves capable of delivering good results? There is no question that Cohen’s record as a state senator has proven him to be strong on core African American issues – perhaps even stronger than his African American predecessor, Harold Ford, Jr. However, there is also no question that Cohen’s tactics and demeanor – and for some, his race – do not always endear him to the African American community. Cohen believes that if he can prove that he both understands African American concerns and work diligently to address them, his race ought not matter. But, fairly or not, Cohen’s race does matter.

Effective leadership requires a combination of many abilities – the ability to connect with constituents, the ability to empathize with those constituents’ concerns, and the ability to work toward effective solutions to those concerns. Even today, each of these abilities is significantly impacted by what a leader looks like. In his first months, Cohen needs to overcome hurdles an African American representative would not have encountered by working to make connections with the majority of his constituents who do not look like him. The apology measure, along with a well-attended community event featuring African American congressman John Conyers, are clearly efforts by Cohen to prove himself capable of understanding and addressing African American concerns.

In our increasingly diverse nation, it will be impossible to find leaders who share a perspective will all of their constituents. What we should seek from those who represent us is a willingness to listen to our concerns and a passion for finding solutions to them. Whether that leader’s ancestors were slaves or slaveholders ought to matter less than how that leader confronts today’s problems, many of which find their origins in the era of slavery. Cohen’s apology bill will not solve any of those problems, but it is a first step toward convincing his constituents that he is up to the task of representing them effectively and it is a step Cohen has to take.