Last week, my colleague DLIC laid out some remarkably cogent objections to the wishy-washy grandeur that is the NCAA Tournament. To a man, the Internets praised him for his thoughtful, well-mannered dissection of a situation likely to devolve into bloodshed or regal heresy. One week later, I bring no such pleasantries to the table. After watching all the powerhouses fall by the wayside of circumstances, and hearing oafs like Billy Packer proclaim that a Final Four populated by relative underdogs is “great for college basketball,” I am at the end of my rope. College basketball is not just inferior to the pros in every way: it is in thrall to the same piteous, pernicious logic that sees fit to put a man in office simply because he reminds voters of themselves.
The chiming underdog scenario in sports is merely a more realistic take on the appeal of the Everyman. I firmly believe that, at this point in time, fans of college hoops would like nothing more than to see me demolish a Young Jordan in a game of one-on-one. Excuse me for neglecting to mention that I am in poor health, suffer from dreadful posture, wield the jump shot of a friendly worm, and somehow am not skilled enough at jumping to take advantage of a decent vertical. You see, yearning to see Goliath taken out on occasion is one thing. But insisting that the essence of the Tournament is nothing less than the complete and total purging of all proven, long-term titans of the hardwood—that basically admits that March Madness is wonderful because, ideally, it subverts the hierarchy of merit enough to put all those highfalutin athletes in their place.
Everyone loves a fine, fine upset, if nothing else to assert mankind’s ability to triumph over odds and break the yoke of statistical determinism. Yet, while sports may thrive on a certain measure of unpredictability, to praise the Tournament for its tendency toward chaos is to render it practically meaningless and dismiss the regular season. Certainly, the ideal Tournament would consist not merely of Madness but also of a good deal of wish fulfillment and chronic achievement. For the No. 1 seed to have made the trip to the dazzling end of the road would not be predictable; rather, it would echo the league, players, and story lines one had come to know over the past months. In short, it would be familiar, consistent with what had come before and what one tends to assume about the progression of organized basketball’s fiery annals.
But I am not merely insisting that teams seeded in the top five coming through on occasion be a necessary condition of a legitimate NCAA postseason. I would like to hold out to you the simple proposal that college hoops is anti-star, and wants nothing more than to see those schools and players who take on the star aura punished for their folly. No. 1 seeds were meant to be broken not only to warm the little guy’s insides but to actively elevate him over the legit athletes, who, in a more sane version of things, would more often than not make their powers felt. Even football, largely regarded as the working man’s game, elevates the position of quarterback to a rarefied plane of glamour and wealth, even on such ostensibly hard-nosed, honest teams as the Pats and Steelers. College basketball is a paradox too soft for the human hand to hold: it is anti-athlete Everymanism at its most virulent, yet finds its greatest support among men who play, or one day will take up, golf on a semi-recreational basis. March Madness is nothing less than the ultimate inversion of this country’s sociocultural power structure: middle-class white men celebrating their triumph as underdogs, and knowing that God must be on their side (the Tournament is the only bit of organized hoops that calls for religion as much as football does).
Why do I hate March Madness? Because, quite simply, I like extravagant accomplishment, especially when it takes the form of things I could never in my wildest dreams imagine doing. I don’t want to elect officials who do it like I would, no more than I visit a doctor because his bedside manner resembles my own. Sports, especially, should be a land where the superhuman and purposefully inventive reign supreme. I want dynasties, dominant players, astonishing displays of fluid cohesion among individuals. No one likes a sure thing, but topsy-turvy peril does nothing to actualize legacies or break out the bright crayon of historic notation. And to those who would claim that the joy is in the game, the tradition, not in any single program or co-captain, I say look into your past! The days of utmost purity, in any sport, were synonymous with some of its more florid stars. Wishing to elide the individual, or even the individual team, in favor of the cryptic singularity of an entropic instant reminds me of the time I put a drained goose in the White House. These are not your peers: THESE ARE YOUR HEROES. Most professional athletes are younger than their spectators, anyway, and college football has no problem lionizing its best; why college basketball must insist on condescension remains a riddle to me.
At the end of the day, the NBA is a league of stars, while today’s reactionary, idealized version of March Madness seeks to extinguish just their ilk. I remember when UNLV and Michigan captured the national imagination by, in effect, fielding NBA teams to grand effect in the Tournament. Or last year, when eventual champions UNC went to war with four future pros among them. These are the teams that, for me, have made college basketball memorable—teams that did achieve true, uncompromising stardom, rather than giving in to the pressure to skulk away from their mythic task.