In Defense of March Madness

The NCAA men's basketball tournament is without question the greatest time of year for any sports fan.

"On any given night, any of the top fifty teams in the country can knock off any of the other top fifty teams in the country. Which means there is never a game you don't want to watch. There is no other sport, collegiate or pro, of which this can be said." ("March Madness: Best Time of Year", by Michael Sean Winters, The National Catholic Reporter, 12 March 2012)

This cracks me up, why? Because, you see, the above passage didn't come from one of the seemingly trillions of writers ESPN has locked away in Connecticut. It didn't come from Deadspin or any of the other countless blogs afforded to the typical sports fan who has a computer and nothing better to do at work. And, maybe most notably, it didn't come as a promotional tool from CBS, TNT, TBS or TruTV that was ultimately aimed at drawing more viewers to their respective networks in order to watch the NCAA men's basketball tournament on television. Nope. The first paragraph of this column instead came from …

… The National Catholic Reporter and writer Michael Sean Winters. It was posted in 2012 and it came from a short piece titled "March Madness: Best Time of Year". Above the headline, tabs for the website included "Faith & Parish", "Peace & Justice", "Spirituality", "Theology", and "Vatican", among other topics. Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the National Catholic Reporter is, according to its "About Us" section, "now a print and Web news source that stands as one of the few independent journalistic outlets for Catholics and others who struggle with the complex moral and societal issues of the day".

Who knew God cared so much about first-round upsets and regional No. 1 seeds?!

Alas, though, maybe it shouldn't come as much of a surprise. March Madness, now in full effect as the Sweet 16 is set and the first weekend of games is in the can, is the most exciting time of year for any sports fan this side of the Super Bowl or the World Cup (and remember -- the latter comes around only once every four years!). It's the most unpredictable, addicting, mayhem-filled set of days in all of athletics, and whether it be 32, 64 or now even 68 squads vying for the chance to hold up that trophy in Atlanta this year, there is no mistaking how widespread and zeitgeist-y this silly, little sports event has become.

Everybody from President Barack Obama to actor Jesse Eisenberg (and, if the above words are to be considered, perhaps even the new pope) has a bracket filled out, ready to compare and contrast with others. March Madness fever is a condition to which almost nobody is immune. Even the most ignorant, uninterested individual is prone to partake in an office pool, online bracket competition or friendly wager this time of year, and the cause behind it transcends the typical once-a-year interest that fringe fans garner during the Super Bowl, for instance, or even the fair-weather country pride that some exude whenever the olympics take over NBC for a few weeks every two years.

Why this happens is anybody's guess. The change in weather could be a factor (sunny skies and warmer temperatures typically help anybody become more excited for anything, it seems). Then again, the amateur-hour element certainly helps as well (there is something inexplicably romantic about watching college students shine in an athletic setting when we know there are professionals who are grossly overpaid to do the same things elsewhere). And, of course, it would be foolish to discount the sheer unpredictability of it all (if there is one thing television viewers from any walk of life enjoy, it's the story of David beating Goliath and the underdog overcoming adversity to earn victory when victory seems impossible).

ESPN's Eamonn Brennan, for one, took a different approach to explanation when he argued in favor of insanity in a column published on 17 March:

"College basketball will always have the insanity market cornered," he wrote. "Even when it's bad, it's oh so good. Never is that more true -- or more widely apparent -- than in March. Each year at this time, we fill out our bracket and make up lame excuses to leave work and gather around the nearest TV and kneel before the glory of March, where anything can and usually does happen… But we shouldn't settle for mere derangement, even come tourney time. We shouldn't have to sacrifice aesthetic enjoyment in the first 35 minutes of a game to experience the thrill of last-second heroics in the final five. We should strive for something higher, something much harder to define, something we have to see to know. Allure. Glamor. Beauty. Watchability, for lack of a better term. If you're looking for crazy this time of year, you don't have to look too hard. But if you're looking for that something extra, for those qualities that elevate basketball into the sublime, you've come to the right place." ("Sweet science of March Madness".

He's right. March Madness and college basketball provide that something extra that other athletic events -- both collegiate and professional -- somehow lack. It's mind-boggling, really. The sight of a 20-year-old floppy-haired kid with a tiny bit of sparse acne covering his chin nailing a half-court shot to win a game for his team goes beyond thrilling and always winds up somewhere near inspirational. Watching a college senior weep after being defeated and realizing that his basketball career is over isn't just a lesson in dramatics; it's also a lesson in consequence. Knowing that these guys give up the majority of their lives to the sport at hand, and then seeing that effort, preparation and hope turn out to be all for nothing is, in short, heart-breaking.

Actually, such a scene evokes precisely what has become the event's secret weapon: Humanity. It's what separates this competition from other championship tournaments. Consider college football. It has operated without a playoff for as long as it's been in existence and even though that will change next year, we have no idea how or if it will be able to compare with the type of fury and theater that March Madness offers. College baseball has a much more provocative way of deciding things (its final is a best-of-three series), but try as it may, the sport has yet to break into the mainstream in the same way its roundball and pigskin counterparts have accomplished in the last few decades.

As for the pro game… well, you simply can't emulate the same type of passion for the practice when you are paid truckloads of money to do what you do. Maybe more importantly, though, you can't sell to an audience the fact that the passion still exists when that audience knows how unfathomably wealthy some of the members of the teams are. That's not to say the pros don't care about winning and losing -- you don't get to play on that level if you don't have a burn inside of you that is fueled by a unique sense of and desire for competition -- but even so, those guys can't even come close to the type of hunger that most of the young men on these collegiate squads exude as they leave their heart and soul on a basketball court for all to see and judge.

Or, in other words, you can't find this kind of stuff anywhere else because the setting in which this stuff originates can't be manufactured.

"There's nothing more exciting than March Madness!" Bleacher Report's Parker Shields wrote in 2010. "No other season of the year serves up so much controversy, excitement, passion, heart-break, and surprises. Some would argue that Bowl Season is the most wonderful time of the year. But how can you compare the excitement of a late game Field Goal to the Joy of a buzzer beater as time expires?" ("March Madness: Why It's the Greatest Time of the Year", by Parker Shields, 03 March 2010)

You can't. That's why the latter half of March is so intoxicating for both die-hard sports fans and fringe onlookers who happen across a game or two on television. Much like the spring-weather backdrop outside, March Madness is predicated on innocence, the kind of naiveté that makes things fresh and interesting again. It can serve as an inspiration. It can serve as a distraction. It can serve as an obsession.

And -- who knows? -- if you're God, maybe it can even serve as a break from thinking about how to make sense of this complicated and odd little world.

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