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24 March 2009
March Madness as cultural artifact

If ever there were a cultural good crying out for investigation, it is the annual ritual in which millions of Americans become transfixed by a ladder. Or the powers of two. Or maybe by a bouncing ball. We’re not sure, because, to be totally honest, we (and by “we” we mean your humble correspondent, not his hyper-basketball-hip fellow editor) have never followed March Madness. At all. But we can’t help noticing that it’s happening, again. (We have noticed, but with any luck the boss hasn’t—the “Boss Button” on the official online video player was used, the NCAA says, 1.5 million times on Thursday 19 March alone.)

It’s at moments like this that we turn to what has recently been termed “crowdsourcing,” which in this case translates roughly as “getting other people to do the difficult cultural analysis for you.” College basketball fans everywhere, turn your attention to our five questions for a few moments before the next round starts! What does March Madness make of the world?

1. What does March Madness assume about the way the world is?

March madness makes the assumption that any team that works hard and aims high has a chance at winning a national title. It assumes all else is equal and that from the start of the season to it’s ending a team has a chance at greatness.

Carl Holmes

On the women’s side, “Courtney Paris, an all-American center at the University of Oklahoma, made a promise that was rare and provocative: if the Sooners did not win the national basketball championship, she would repay the cost of her scholarship.” 

Wow!  Although I’ve read about investment in players, I don’t remember previous statements along the lines of what the athletic scholarship ‘really meant.’  This also assumes that ‘big time college players’ will automatically receive ‘big money’ on the next level, but that’s not always the case. ... More from the 3/23/09 NY Times piece “Putting a Price on a Title Run Stirs a Debate,” by Jere’ Longman, ...

“This program and university have given me so much support,” said Paris, who is from Piedmont, Calif. “I feel like I want to give them something back that’s really special. If I can’t do that with a national championship, I want to give back my scholarship because I don’t feel like I’ve earned it.”

The university has said it would not hold her to her promise. News reports have placed the cost of an Oklahoma scholarship at $64,000, but according to the university’s Web site, out-of-state tuition would put the value at more than $100,000.

Thomas B. Grosh IV
2. What does March Madness assume about the way the world should be?

March Madness makes the assumption that the numbers do not lie and that all else being equal everyone has a fair shot at the prize. Unfortunately that is not the case. Some teams are more prepared, have better resources and more talent then others. In a “perfect” world every team would have the same resources available and would compete on an equal playing field.

Carl Holmes
3. What does March Madness make possible?

Lots of high energy parties on the campus and beyond.  Interest in evaluating the relative strengths of various teams.  Sense of identity (not just for an alma mater, but for a tournament favorite which one has “always” rooted for). ...

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Spiffy commercials which garners significant revenue for CBS and in turn makes Myles Brand, the NCAA’s president, one of the most powerful people in sports…

It was good to see that last year’s controversial beer advertising led 100 college presidents and athletic directors to send a letter to Myles Brand to critique the advertising to an audience which inclues many below the drinking age.

Thomas B. Grosh IV
4. What does March Madness make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?

1.  To get along w/“die-hard” fans of the “arch-enemy,” e.g., Duke vs. UNC.  Note:  Most of the conflicts are with “the unknown other” on-line, across the court, etc.  But it can create awkward social and workplace interactions.
2.  Sleep and focus upon other important tasks such as family, friends, relationships, work for those which must see every minute or at least track every game. ... For some the time crunch at the end of the tournament is brutal, unique versus other sports (even in contrast to the spread of games in the NBA playoffs). ... Should we mention these concerns also include education for those which play in the tournament year after year after a full regular season and conference tournament.

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Basketball to be laid back and not big business.  How about the interview w/Calhoun regarding his salary?  If you’re not familiar with it, here’s an interesting blog commentary:

But what will CT residents think now that Calhoun lost in the final four?  Should they shell out the money like UK for Calipari to get a better coach? 

“Myles Brand, the NCAA’s president, said, “You have to ask some very hard questions about whether this is really in tune with academic values.” Costly compensation packages for coaches have “extended beyond what’s expected within the academic community,” Mr. Brand said, speaking at a news conference this afternoon at Ford Field here, where on Saturday a record-setting 70,000 fans are expected to pack the stands to watch four teams vie for the chance to compete for the national championship next week.”—Chronicle of Higher Education,

Thomas B. Grosh IV
5. What new culture is created in response?

The winner of the title receives the glory, but so do the other teams which participate.  As mentioned by Carl Holmes, certain teams come in with an advantage.  As teams win more and more they grow in their ability not only to recruit for, but also to invest in their atheletic programs.*  The money comes from alumni, sale of merchandise, and increased earnings from the tournament itself (individual schools and conferences). 

The recent concern regarding athletics and academics has appeared to increase the graduation rates, but there is much work to be done in this area, Rates/2009_Mens_Bball_PR.pdf

But for one who enjoys the game and watching it in community, there is still something about the shared legends, stories of victory, shaping of dynasties/stars ... March Madness history,

*George Mason claims overall admissions spike after ‘06 Final Four run.

Thomas B. Grosh IV

Lots of other elimination-bracket wonderfulness. My two favorite examples from this year are:

I also once organized a Cricket World Cup office pool as an ineffective protest over the alienating popularity the office’s NCAA tourney pool. Despite my advantage in actually having learned the basic rules of cricket beforehand, I think the same guy wound up winning both contests anyway.

—Nate Barksdale

It creates the widest, and most examined sports-speculation in the US.  Fantasy Sports are big, and the Super-Bowl is its own strange phenomenon, but March Madness is wider and deeper - for the 3-ish weeks of its existence - than anything else. 

A new sports culture, similar to a race-track maybe…  but so wide and deep, it then requires constant checking by all interested parties.

Matt Blazer