By Donna Britt
Special to The Washington Post
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 to 18 players. 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. That's why so many guys stifle a legitimate instinct that — like its more embraced opposite, laughter — reduces toxins, elevates mood and lowers stress. 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.
Silver Spring, Maryland, native Jason Miskiri, 39, experienced March Madness's emotional roller coaster as a point guard for 14th-seed George Mason in 1999. "I felt it at the last whistle" marking the defeat to third-seeded Cincinnati, Miskiri recalls. First there was "a little bit of anger," then memories of "the practices, the games, the travel, moments with my teammates. It was like seeing your whole life in front of you. I looked at my coach, who'd never coach me again. . . . You can feel you're crying, but it's worth crying — you don't care who's watching." Afterward, Miskiri played briefly for the Charlotte Hornets and now owns the Society, a popular Silver Spring restaurant.
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."
When this year's 16 seed, the Hampton University Pirates, lost to unbeaten Kentucky (a true David-and-Goliath contest after Hampton won an upset that inspired several players to weep with joy, Pirates guard Keith Carroll told me), the team stayed mostly dry-eyed. Losing by 23 points to the tournament's top seed wasn't so terrible after commentators predicted a 35-point catastrophe. "Playing the best was a great way to end our season," explains Pirates Emmanuel Okoroba. The senior forward, who says he's "not a crier," admits to having wept only once during a game.
A Garland, Texas, high school senior with zero college offers, he was playing in an Amateur Athletic Union summer league tournament when his coach told him that his fledgling hoops career could be over if he didn't improve. Considering life without his beloved sport, he felt his face dampen. "I'd sacrificed so much for basketball — literally blood, sweat and tears," he recalls. "It's not weakness to cry for something you love. Some guys cry over a girl. I'd rather cry over basketball."
Perhaps one day, Okoroba will meet a woman worthy of his tears. In the meantime, I'm glad that he — and countless other March Madness-loving ballers — has something in his life he feels okay crying over.
Donna Britt is a former columnist for The Washington Post and the author of "Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving."