Monday, March 22, 2010

Things That Don't Suck: March Madness

There are lots of reasons to dislike Division I college basketball: the unsavory recruiting of middle-schoolers, the even more unsavory practice of paying supposedly amateur players under the table, the two-faced coaches who break their commitments to their schools as easily as they accept lucrative endorsements, and last but not least, there's the questionable morality of building a multi-million dollar business on the backs of student athletes who don't see a dime of that money and who sometimes don't even receive an adequate education.

But none of that has anything to do with the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. Call it March Madness, call it the Big Dance, call it a big ratings bump for CBS—whatever you call it, it's still the perfect playoff system. Unlike sports where seven-game series can drag on for weeks, every game is do-or-die. In close games, you can feel the pressure these kids are under through your TV, and you can feel the insane enthusiasm of the crowd, which is close enough to the players to make their presence felt. This is worlds away from the MLB or the NFL, where only celebrities and the very rich can afford tickets and homefield advantage barely exists anymore.

Then there's the number of teams, which is—once again—perfect. The NBA gives too many teams playoff spots, and college football gives too few (only two teams have a legitimate shot at the title, after all), but college basketball, like Baby Bear's possessions, is just right. Most of the selected teams are big-time teams from major conferences but there are enough “mid majors” selected every year to keep things interesting and to showcase a wide variety of playing styles. Sometimes these always-described-as-“scrappy”-teams even “make some noise” and advance well beyond the fate that their seeding has marked out for them, and that's when March Madness demonstrates the single best thing about sports.

Every major sports championship has a distinct identity. The World Series has its traditional status as a centerpiece of American culture (or it did when there were day games played); the Super Bowl has its unashamed, unrestrained orgy of consumerism and excess; the World Cup has its nationalism and rivalries stretching back into the colonial era or further back to the Hundred Years War. March Madness has the spirit of the underdog, which may be a horrible-sounding sports cliche, but it also happens to be true.

Unlike many playoff systems, every team really does have a chance. Maybe not a chance to “win it all,” but a chance to defeat more lauded, more successful programs and get to the Sweet 16 at the very least. A few years ago, George Mason, an 11-seed, got to the Final Four. This year Cornell and the University of Washington (Go Huskies!) stormed their way past the first two rounds and either one of them could replicate Mason's feat. That kind of story is impossible for even me to be cynical about. These are real-life sports movies, only unencumbered by the subplots about the coach's relationship with his wife. These are young men in their early twenties who are playing the most important games of their lives on national television. For a lot of them, the ones not destined for NBA stardom and shoes named after them, this is as famous as they'll ever get. As trivial as these games are in the larger scheme of things, there are the occasional shots and plays and games that are going to be the moments in the players' lives that they'll remember and be remembered for as long as they live. And we get to watch it all on live TV. Pretty cool, huh?

The teams that exceed expectations—and there are at least one or two every year—are the single best thing about sports. When you ignore the money and corruption and the gambling and the steroids and the “opiate of the masses” aspect, when you get rid of the media and the hype and everything else that's wrong with sports, you just have two teams trying as hard as they humanly can to get a ball in a hoop. One team may be more athletic or taller or have more expensive training equipment and be favored by a whole lot, but either team can win, and sometimes the team that has a small chance to win, has no right to even think about winning even, can upset the order of things, and for about five minutes we're reminded that just because the odds are against us doesn't mean we can't win. It's a message that makes me feel like I'm covered in corn syrup when I'm typing those words, but that doesn't make it any less important.

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