If we choose to remember them kindly, to emphasize their cultural accomplishments prior to their decline and fall, we will recall how the Greeks produced philosophers of the likes of Plato and Aristotle, and we will remember the Romans for their mighty army and their experiments with democracy. After the U.S. falls from its perch as the world’s reigning power, what will be mentioned when future peoples ask the inevitable question: “What, just before the end, did Americans have to be proud of?” There will be the personal computer, Apple, Facebook. But besides all things Silicon Valley, there is one more item that merits celebration: March Madness. Rarely have we, as a culture, achieved such perfection. The tournament is our Parthenon, our Colosseum. Seriously.
In the diverse and divided United States, the number of Americans that the NCAA Tournament engages is truly remarkable. In my own family, interest cuts across genders and age groups: my 10-year-old female cousin and my 80-year-old grandfather both asked me for help with their “picks” this year. The dispersed interest is not unique to my family. All types of people—from presidents (Barack Obama releases his consistently conservative picks every year) to Vegas sports betters—follow the 68-team field passionately. Because colleges from every Division I conference and from every area of the country participate, and because games are played at sites nationwide, no one (people who live in the Pac-12 region excepted) is left without a rooting interest. No wonder then that the word “midmajor” has entered the national lexicon, and that March is the only month of the year when you will hear people from all socioeconomic strata talking about brackets without animosity.
The tournament’s current preeminence in our national consciousness does not, of course, guarantee that it is an event that will be viewed favorably in years to come. Look no further than modern conceptions of Roman gladiator fights for proof that enthusiasm for sport is not necessarily transhistorical. Fortunately for all backers of the NCAA-Tournament-as-our-nation’s-greatest-cultural-achievement theory though, it has plenty of elements that make it worth remembering fondly.
The commonality amongst all these elements is that the competitors—the players—are college kids. Though, with the attention lavished upon certain players, they are not always treated as such, and, with the under-the-table money given to the spectacular athletes, they are not always compensated as such, these players are amateurs.
They are playing for academic institutions, some of which are not your traditional sports powerhouses. Think of Davidson College for instance, enrollment 1,700, whose team upset Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin to make it to the Elite Eight in 2008. The constituents of the academic institution behind the team were so excited by their team’s success that the administration offered to bus the entire student body from North Carolina to Detroit for Davidson’s regional finals games. This is the kind of thing people are thinking about when they exalt “the spirit of March Madness.”
The second important point about the athletes in March Madness being college kids is that they have the skill level of college players—not pros. They are not the basketball machines that professional players are. Aside from a few standouts each year, the players are good, but not great. The talent level makes for a better tournament for two reasons. First of all, because players are prone to messing up or losing their poise, it makes just about anything possible. It allows for BYU to come from twenty-five points down to beat Iona and for Kansas to erase an eleven-point deficit against Purdue. It allows for 15-seeds to upset two-seeds, which happened twice in this year’s tournament. And also, perhaps more vitally, the talent level means that many of the players on the court are playing the last games of their competitive basketball careers. They know that if they lose (the tournament is single-elimination) their glory days on the basketball court will be forever receding. Real emotions—both bliss and despair—are the results of the tournament’s format.
And this is perhaps where the perfection of March Madness lies: in the tournament’s set-up. During the first four days of the tournament (I’ll ignore “the First Four”), there are 48 games of basketball, every one of which has the potential for drama and heartbreak. Games are played simultaneously in different cities, and others are staggered so that they will conclude minutes apart, and while these games are going on, teams are waiting in the locker rooms at the very same arenas, ready to start 20 minutes after Game One ends. The action rolls on from Thursday until Sunday night, after which 16 teams remain, few of whom have managed to stay alive without a scare. After the four regional finals, played in the West, the Midwest, the East and the South, the Final Four commences. Held in cavernous football stadiums—in front of around 60,000 fans, occasionally more—the Final Four is both literally and figuratively the biggest event in basketball.
For its grip on the nation, the emotions it evokes in participants, and its ingenious format, the NCAA Tournament is worthy of the label of cultural artifact. At the very least, it is worth watching.