The N.C.A.A. is sinning. So is the N.B.A. And, well, so is every high school basketball team.
That’s if they are playing basketball after the official beginning of the Season of Lent.
In the early days of basketball, the Christian origins of the game (in the Y.M.C.A.) spawned an unwritten commandment that games were forbidden to be played (or watched) between Ash Wednesday and Easter — the 40-day holy period known as Lent. It falls at a slightly different time every year, but almost always overlaps with March Madness – the N.C.A.A. Basketball Championship Tournament. (In 2013, Lent goes from February 13 to March 30.)
The last basketball games of the Pre-Lenten Season were typically played the day before Ash Wednesday – on Mardis Gras – and they were always epic.
The Lenten Season, as it was called, symbolized solidarity with Jesus, who, according to Biblical accounts, went into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, abstinence, soul-searching, and repentance before starting his ministry.
In contrast, the fun, frolic, dancing, and madness enjoyed by players, teams, and spectators at basketball games was considered highly inappropriate and even blasphemous during this very solemn time.
Anything resembling fun had to be squeezed in prior to Lent, during the Pre-Lenten Season. Or else.
So, for example, the N.C.A.A.’s Mock Selection Thursday event would have been banned. Sinners repent!
T.N.T.s N.B.A. Doubleheader Thursday broadcasts would have been banned. So too – typically – would the N.B.A. All Star Weekend. Sinners repent!
As you may know, Easter always falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring (March 20). In those days, basketball schedulers couldn’t book game dates until after Easter.
Applying that vintage ideology today, it means that the N.C.A.A. qualifying rounds are almost always “sinful,” but at least the Final Four often falls outside of Lent. Sometimes, as is the case in 2013, only the Championship Final game is outside of the holy days. So before you start buying tickets or flipping channels, check your calendars first, sinners!
This unofficial commandment was particularly strict among African American basketball teams. At the time, in their effort to assimilate and gain equality, America’s black leaders thought it was best for the race to model itself after the highest standards of elite European society.
St. Christopher Club’s athletic director, Father Everard Daniel.
This thinking translated to basketball, where, for example, professionalism in the sport was considered a “sin” until well into the 1920s.
Furthermore, many early African American basketball teams had strong links to churches. The St. Christopher Club, which won 4 Colored Basketball World’s Championships during the 1910s, was organized by the St. Philip’s Protestant Episcopal Church in Harlem, perhaps the most prestigious black church in the country at the time. The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, which won two such championship titles. had links to St. Augustine’s Protestant Episcopal Church.
Thus, the last basketball game of the Pre-Lenten Season was typically scheduled to coincide with Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday.
The Mardis Gras game was always epic.
Basketball resumed immediately after Easter.
Eventually, the resolve behind this unofficial Lenten taboo disintegrated. African American club teams faced growing competition, increased market demand, and increasingly lucrative financial opportunities.
Basketball was just too tempting.
It still is.
(For a related article, please see “March Madness: Sanctified For Once?” here on this website.)