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March madness

The NCAA men's tournament is now almost universally known in America as March Madness, presumably because the insane amount of college basketball excitement drives fans absolutely delirious. And the lunacy is supposed to build until a champion is crowned a few weeks from now. But that's not exactly how it plays out. The phenomenon has now far outgrown people who actually care about college basketball or know the slightest thing about it, so that part of the madness has to be that rubes who know nothing about the sport (me) are willing to wager in bracket pools where they try to predict the winner of every single game in the 63-game tournament. This plays out like a prolonged lottery, with buzzer-beater jump shots taking the place of ping-pong balls being suctioned out of a vat. And excitement doesn't build as the weeks go on, it tends to fizzle out, even though the games become generally more competitive. Unless one is affiliated with one of the schools, one probably doesn't especially care who's going to win once it no longer can help the bracket.

So for many, the madness seems confined to the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament, when 64 teams are wittled down to 32. Not only can one still be optimistic about one's bracket picks, which are still fresh in mind, but one can get swept up in the thrill of underdog victories, for this is the round where the true underdogs compete, and inevitably a few of them pull off unlikely victories against the established athletic powerhouses. This affords commentators a chance to bring out all the bromides about teams working hard and being disciplined and having faith and believing in their coach, their dear leader and so on, or perhaps the other team was complacent and ill-prepared, lazy, unmotivated, not working together as a unit, taking their success for granted. All these ideological notions become more salient the greater an upset the outcome is, and it's easy for the novice to figure that out. The teams are conveniently seeded with numbers, so you know exactly how shocked you should be at an outcome.

But what's most "mad" about these first few days is that they constitute a pseudo-surreptitious holiday for those working at offices, as office betting pools are typically condoned, along with tracking the games' results from one's desk. It can seem a mini office Mardi Gras, in which ordinary rules are suspended or turned upside down, and you are watching TV at your desk. But March Madness still permits office workers to have the sense they are getting away with something. Last year, CBS made live video streams of the games available for the first time over the Internet, and introduced the "boss button" innovation, which allows you to hide the mini-screen on your computer with one click. This institutionalized promise (and this should tip everyone off that it is not in any way subversive) that the network is on your side in being sneaky and fooling management creates the illusion that for these few days, the worker is winning. This is the real Madness. Hence the slew of newspaper pieces calculating the lost productivity that is alleged to stem from people paying attention to the tournament -- this is not so much to chastise American workers as to give them a sense of the scope of their pseudo-triumph against the bosses (who often organize the betting pools themselves). But nothing is being wasted; instead the pressure that has built up in the social system of production has an opportunity to be let off in a controlled and entirely expected fashion. After the first two days of the tourney, few enough teams are left that all the games can be scheduled during evenings and weekends. This ends the madness and returns office life to business as usual.

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