As March and its madness come to a close, I can’t help but feel reflective and a little confused, like I do every March. Every year, I fill out a bracket for the NCAA Tournament, and every year, I wonder how my mom—who routinely referred to my sports practices as “rehearsals” and my uniforms as “costumes”—seems to have picked a better bracket than me.
But it’s not just an issue for me, as a well-informed but relatively passive fan of college basketball. Many diehard college basketball fans get so obsessed with the tournament that they’ve watched all of the Bracketology specials on ESPN and made extremely careful and well-thought-out picks for their entire bracket. Two weeks later, they’re often quite embarrassed to find that they lost their office pool to that guy who asked them why the NCAA would let a Canadian team like UConn play in the tournament.
In eighth grade, when I was absolutely convinced that fourth-seeded Syracuse was the team to beat and I wanted some easy money, I remember covertly sneaking my bracket and five dollars to the guy running these 13-year-old shenanigans. Syracuse lost in the first round, and away went my five dollars and my pride.
As with all things sports gambling, choosing a bracket is an exercise in futility—no one can ever be absolutely certain of the outcome of a game, let alone 63 of them. So why do we do it?
Even though it can be crippling to the most faithful of fans, that uncertainty is a big part of why we love sports in the first place. As Andy Roddick put it after upsetting Roger Federer on Monday, “There is no script in sports, you know. I think that’s what makes it the best entertainment in the world.” Though this scriptlessness applies equally well to the adventures of Snooki and friends, it sometimes takes an event like March Madness to remind us that exercises in futility can be good for us, if for no other reason than that they remind us why we enjoy watching and playing sports in the first place.
ESPN insists on reminding us early every March that it’s “the season for upsets” (and for Dick Vitale yelling at us about how we’re in “Upset City, baby!”). Underdogs and upsets are the main appeal for a good portion of the people who follow the tournament, even at arm’s length. Those people were not disappointed this year, as two second-seeded teams, Duke and Missouri, fell victim to two rarely threatening 15th-seeded teams, Lehigh and Norfolk State, respectively.
We watch because we want a good underdog story, like we got with Virginia Commonwealth last year or George Mason in 2006, regardless of how detrimental it is to our brackets. And even for those who don’t actually know anything about college sports, March Madness brackets serve as a not-so-gentle reminder of college basketball’s existence and the excitement that comes along with it. I’m happy with the number of people on my Facebook newsfeed posting things like, “I’m rooting for Colorado because Baylor’s uniforms are a gross color.” Maybe March Madness has succeeded in turning some of the country’s less sports-inclined into fans, at least for a few weeks.
That might even be true at Columbia. Many students have some vested interest in the tournament, often through a hometown team or two’s presence in the field. I know that whenever the Minnesota Golden Gophers are in the tournament, I’m much more interested than if it’s just another year where Duke, Kansas, UNC, and Kentucky are supposed to be in the Final Four. As fellow columnist Michele Cleary pointed out last week, we might even get to see the Light Blue represented in the ever-increasing field of 68 teams. But again, it’s the uncertainty of next season that keeps it appealing.
Tom Caruso is a Columbia College junior majoring in economics-mathematics.